Armchair Exploration of Mars
Scientists are accumulating masses of data on the red planet. Last Fall, I audited a course on Mars, part of the graduate Astrobiology program (AB 502) at the University of Washington. We concentrated upon evidence about Mars’ suitability for life, now or in its past, guided by faculty from several disciplines. There was no textbook: many of our sources would interest general readers seeking to satisfy their curiosity about Mars.
The best single reference I know of, besides the Internet, is A Traveler’s Guide to Mars (Workman Publishing, 2003), available for $20 or less. The author, William Hartmann, earned a Ph.D. under Gerard Kuiper, pioneered crater counting as a method for estimating the age of planetary surfaces, and has been involved in Mars exploration from Mariner 9 (1972) through contemporary Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) and Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA). The text is clear and easy to read, organized by the regions of Mars which first or best characterized aspects of the planet’s nature. The number and quality of the illustrations are what you’d expect in a much more expensive book.
For larger format color pictures, you can’t yet beat Magnificent Mars by Ken Croswell (Free Press, 2003, $60). But you can access all images from US orbiters at www.msss.com and from the surface at marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/home/. For more recent views of Mars there can be no better source than Steven Squyres, the Principal Investigator and spokesman for The Mars Exploration Rovers: those marvelous robots which have persevered over two years (>750 days!). Squyres’ book, Roving Mars (Hyperion, 2005), provides an engaging and accessible description of development of the rovers from the standpoint of the technicians directly responsible for them. For anyone interested in engineering at the brink of know-how, under time-pressure and public scrutiny, it is a thrilling read. Non-geeks might find the first twothirds of the book tedious. An excellent audio version is available, which I found delightful, and Disney has just released an IMAX movie based upon the book.
For some reason, Disney decided not to allow Seattle’s Pacific Science Center to show “Roving Mars.” So I plan a pilgrimage to Vancouver, B.C. in March to see it even though the reviews have been mixed, at best. With respect to scientific results, Squyres’ book summarizes what appeared to have been gleaned from the first 400 days of the rovers’ explorations. Many of the details have been published: in Nature 436:44-69 (7 July, 2005), an entire issue of Earth & Planetary Science 240 (30 Nov, 2005) and elsewhere. Squyres has written occasional synopses in a casual log on the NASA web site. He gave a general public lecture at UW on February 28th and will present a more technical seminar, probably also open to the public, in the UW Astronomy Annex Auditorium at 4 p.m. on March 2.
Finally, I can’t think of a more interesting context for appreciating what is being learned about Mars than the epic, 3-part novel, beginning with Red Mars (Bantam, 1993) created by Kim Stanley Robinson. Employing USGS maps of Mars that depicted most of its actual topography, first revealed by 7,000 images from the Mariner 9 orbiter, Robinson moved his characters around realistic landscapes all over Mars through three centuries of exploration and transformation. Terra forming, modifying Mars’ environment to make it more suitable for life derived from Earth, underlies a plot which raises questions about both the feasibility of changing the planet and philosophical issues of whether it would be appropriate to do so. Readers perceive developments through the eyes of key members of the “First 100”, the initial colonists launched to Mars in the 3rd decade of this 21st century. It is most intriguing that the author provides the means to traverse the planet with his characters pole to pole, experiencing pristine Martian landscape and sites for communities, exploration and exploitation. You needn’t take my word about it; Robinson’s Mars trilogy and its author are described at length within the admirable non-fiction text, Mapping Mars, by Oliver Morton (Picador, 2002, pages 173-183). For my time and money, Red Mars far surpasses Robert Zubrin’s novel, First Landing (Ace, 2001).