Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Newly fascinated by Mars

Well do I remember the first moon landing in July 1969; watching it on black and white television in my primary school assembly hall - the absolute thrill of it all. The entire Apollo programme, James Burke, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Kennedy Space Center, Jet Propulsion Lab, Pasadena, Houston Mission Control, Space Odyssey, Space Oddity - this was the future we were told would happen, and it was happening. All those episodes of Thunderbirds from the mid '60s, Dan Dare in Eagle, the Trajan Empire in Look and Learn; the future was Space. We were brought up to believe it would come to pass - it did. The moon landing was the apogee. I can still touch that optimism. And then came anti-climax; Apollo 13's dramatic return, golf on the moon - Apollo 17 just three and half years later, man's last visit to our lifeless satellite. Then the mundane launches of the Space Shuttle - two tragedies, fourteen dead astronauts - and countless satellites that give us what we take for granted today - multi-channel TV, GPS, Google Earth - the conquest of near space has given us multifarious benefits of which we are only vaguely aware.

Yet somehow Mars never grabbed me - from the outset those 1960s Mariner missions sent back fuzzy black-and-white images of something that looked no different to the moon. The landing of Viking I on Mars in June 1976 somehow passed me by (although those first colour images of the surface of the Red Planet, like the one below, do strike a chord when I look at them again).

Below: frost on thesurface of Mars - photo from the Viking 2 lander. Another world, no less than 54 million kilometres away, ice and blue sky. Photographs taken over 34 years ago! After Viking 1 and 2, it would be another 20 years until man (the Americans, for the USSR and its successor states failed to do this) would get some intelligent machinery back onto the surface of Mars.

Below: in 1996, the Pathfinder lander launched a small remote control vehicle, Sojourner, to roam around taking measurements of things. Sojourner, 65cm long, moved around for some two years, covering about 100m during that time. Below: Pathfinder takes a photo of Sojourner, investing a rock.

The next significant missions to Mars were the twin solar-powered Mars Exploration Rovers MER-A (Spirit) and MER-B (Opportunity), both of which landed in January 2004. Spirit conked out in 2010, but Opportunity is still going strong, sending amazingly beautiful photos back to earth.

Above: a b&w image looking back as Opportunity crawls out of a crater. The lovely colour panoramic photos taken by Opportunity are here. Below: a Martian sunset, taken by Spirit.

Next up - in 2008 - was a stationery lander, Phoenix, which descended on Mars's northern polar region and relayed findings to Earth for over five months. It was looking for traces of water; sadly it did not last out the Martian winter.

Left: autumn on Mars; photo taken by the Phoenix lander, 2008.

Are we amazed any more? The things mankind can do nowadays - are we impressed? Moni isn't. $2.5 billion spent on the current Curiosity mission - to me, that's 36 cents for every man, woman and child on the planet - it's a snip for the show we'll be getting.

Curiosity, which landed yesterday, is nuclear-powered, moves around at 4cm/second (eight times faster than Spirit and Opportunity), will tell us - and show us - more of Mars.

There are interesting things up there. The Caves of Mars, for example, or Martian geysers. Neither are on the agenda for this particular mission, but I must say I'm hooked. Below: photo taken by Curiosity on the day it landed, with Mount Sharp in the background. I'm looking forward to high-resolution colour photos in coming days.

I was born on the very day space travel began (4 October 1957, the launch of Sputnik 1). The first 12 years saw advances that were visibly rapid. The pace of extra-terrestrial exploration has slowed down since, but I would hope that within my life time we shall see men on Mars. What then? After early manned missions (maybe one-way missions), terraforming - making Mars suitable for regular human life. A fascinating thought.

The moon had my full attention as an 11 year-old. Mars is creeping up on me, it's significance - mythic as well as scientific. Seven years ago on holiday I had a dream about a discovery of anomalous artefacts on Mars that I turned into a short story; that dream is universal.

This evening Moni and I watched Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time. And there it all is - that myth. Are we really not alone? A scary thought - but no less scary than the realisation that we are indeed the only sentient beings in this vast universe of ours.

[All photos NASA. Who else?]

This time last year:
Rhetorical question: why the fuss?

This time two years ago:
Varsovians! Ditch the car - buy a quarterly karta miejska

This time three years ago:
The limited interests of mankind's geniuses

This time four years ago:
Into the fading light

This time five years ago:
Ar y Ffordd i Pwyl Rhydd

1 comment:

Sigismundo said...

I've never fully understood why girls/women generally (i.e. speaking in terms of gross averages, for you sex-equality nazis out there) tend to be less interested in things like Mars exploration. (This also holds true of Science Fiction as a genre, where women readers/viewers are notoriously outnumbered at least 10 to 1).

I guess women's problems tend to be set more in the here and now: there are biological imperatives at stake. Conversely, I've never understood how ANYONE could be even remotely interested in soaps like Dead Enders, yet millions upon millions of viewers are (and most of them female).

Now, the question is, does the total amount of money spent on soaps in the world, say annually, exceed 32¢ per man/woman and child?

Mars Exploration vs East Enders? I know what I'd chose.

Curiosity has certainly aroused mine.