Saturday, September 01, 2012
News From Mars
News From Our Neighboring Planet
Mars never gets old. Every time we get a new look at the planet we see it in higher resolution. The earliest images shot from a dedicated spacecraft, taken by Mariner 4 in July 1965, look more like images from an abdominal ultrasound than photographs of a planet.
Now, nearly half a century later, we can watch ourselves watching Mars. After the rover Curiosity landed successfully early Monday morning, it was photographed on the Martian surface by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passing overhead. Curiosity was already looking out toward the horizon, its instruments coming online one by one.
This new landing — a triumph of scientific technology — tells us as much about the human imagination as it does about the fourth planet from the sun. Compared with what science fiction writers have made of Mars, the Curiosity mission looks rudimentary, almost primitive. But the spark of actuality is far more captivating than anything we can imagine. We have been seeing detailed images of Mars for years. And yet when Curiosity began transmitting from Gale Crater, it presented us with the cognitive shock of seeing Mars in something close to real time.
Curiosity’s operations are complex, but its mission is simple: to examine the chemistry of Mars in hopes of learning whether it might have supported microbial life. The landing was a one-time drama. What we get now is the continuing drama of interplanetary observation. If all goes well, there will be a flood of data arriving from Curiosity’s sensors and cameras. And for many people, each new increment of knowledge will be a new inducement to walk outside on a clear, dark night and look for that tiny red dot of reflected light overhead.