From: Frank Warren <frank-warren.nul> Date: Mon, 16 Feb 2004 20:12:30 -0800 Fwd Date: Tue, 17 Feb 2004 08:05:50 -0500 Subject: With Close-Ups of Mars The Mystery Gets Lost In Source: The New york times http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/17/science/space/17MARS.html?ex=3D1077598800&= en=3D8db69a6cc1c14b6d&ei=3D5062 February 17, 2004 With Close-Ups of Mars, the Mystery Gets Lost in Space By Sarah Boxer Oh, for the days of mottled orbs and fiery craters! I don't want to be a NASA naysayer, but photographically speaking, things were more romantic before the Mars landing. Spirit and Opportunity, the rovers rolling across the planet, may have sturdy little arms, hearts and drill bits, but often they are rather prosaic photographers. They have turned the mysterious red planet into an ordinary desert. Does Mars really look like southern Iraq? It's not for want of equipment. The photographic Web site of NASA and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/targetFamily/Mars shows pictures from half a dozen cameras: the panoramic camera, the navigation camera, the microscopic imager, the descent image motion estimation system and the hazard identification cameras (front and rear). Most of the knockout Mars shots, however, are not the work of these cameras, but were taken from much farther away, by the Mars Global Surveyor Mars Orbiter Camera. In 2002, this orbiting camera shot a picture of the gullies in one of the craters of Mars. The detailed, sepia-toned photograph looks like a lusciously thick mudslide. In 2003, the orbiter camera took a picture of the Martian globe as a pink and gray marble hanging in a black sky. In 2004, it photographed some scalloped shapes in the desolate north polar dunes, indicating which way the Martian winds blew. And later, the camera caught a view of the south polar residual cap that could pass as one of Edward Weston's 1930's sand dune photographs. The troughs on the pole look like the trails of a thousand snakes in the sand. Now that the spaceships have landed, though, the pictorial prospect is more muted and more, well, mundane. Some of the photographs are quite nice, but you have to keep reminding yourself that they come from far, far away. They don't have the thrill of unfamiliarity. You don't have to reach for a metaphor to describe them. You can just turn to your atlas. One photograph taken by the Opportunity looks like a shot of the foothills in the Austrian Alps. And when the Spirit rolled off its lander last month, it started photographing the Gusev crater, a red rocky expanse resembling the Mojave Desert. Each camera tried a different tack, but all ended up with humdrum views. The panoramic camera took a picture with rolling hills in the distance. The navigation camera got a closer look at the flatland. The hazard-identification cameras, both front and back, focused not only on the obstacles in front of them and behind but also gave a view of the vehicle itself. One image taken by the Spirit's panoramic camera even shows the drag mark, nicknamed the Magic Carpet, left by the rover. I know that the Mars rovers had to find a relatively smooth place to land. And I know that the rovers are on Mars to study the soil and rocks and see how they react to the shock of things landing on and dragging across them. Still, it does seem a little sad if after traveling millions of miles you find that the most photogenic thing around you is the car you came in on and the tracks it made. For some viewers, of course, this is exactly the excitement. Familiarity. Mars is like home. Same dust, same rocks, same prospects. Maybe there was even water once. It's a place that earthlings and their land rovers could colonize soon. NASA has heaped on the folksiness. It treats the vehicles like plucky characters, and when the Spirit eventually reached one of its targets =97 a triangular football-size rock =97 NASA gave the rock a name, Adirondack, and photographed it from every point of view: at a distance, up close, from the side, from above. But from my point of view, the most intriguing picture, taken in black and white by the microscopic imager, was the strangest, a close-up that showed only one facet of the rock, half in brilliant sun, half in the shadow of the rover. Why? Because it didn't look like an Earth rock. The Opportunity is currently exploring part of the Meridiani Planum, a place that looks, according to the panoramic camera, like a rocky outcrop in a Courbet landscape. The view can almost make you nostalgic for the Old World. But among the pictures taken by the Opportunity, one of my favorites, made by the microscopic imager, features something unearthly: perfectly round, perfectly bizarre beadlike things on the crater's floor. But good old NASA calls them blueberries! Why then are some pictures taken by the hazard-identification cameras so thrilling? They are, if anything, the most homey of all. The rear camera is constantly looking backward, focusing anxiously on the lander from which it roved. And the front camera cannot take a picture without including a bit of the rover in it. In one picture you can see the arm of the Opportunity, and the arm's shadow, as it reaches beyond the rover onto Martian soil. Way off in the distance you can see the rock outcropping the rover is about to explore. What saves the picture from looking like just another image of an earthly construction site, though, is the sharp curve of the horizon. The planet looks like an orb again. A round foreign object out there waiting to be discovered.
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