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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 2004 > Feb > Feb 17

With Close-Ups of Mars The Mystery Gets Lost In

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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