From Mars to Earth…

Every now and again something happens that makes you stop and think “My, how things have changed…”

I remember (cue Hovis music) when I was young, a “space mad kid”, hoovering up every bit of news about the space shuttle, and the great unmanned missions to Jupiter and Saturn, Uranus and Neptune and, of course, Mars. In those pre-Internet, flare-infested, tank-top terrorised, Bay City Roller blighted times, we space enthusiasts were basically fed crumbs from the table. If a probe encountered a planet there would be an exciting piece on the TV news that night, illustrated with a photo (or two, if we were lucky), and then the next day’s newspapers would have a couple of pictures inside… then nothing. Well, nothing for months. We’d have to wait (im)patiently until a special issue of National Geographic, or Astronomy or Sky & Telescope appeared on the shelves, a “Collector’s Edition” with a large feature dedicated to the flyby. Around the same time there’d be a TV special or two to watch – a special “Horizon” usually, all about the encounter. Looking back now it was a dark time, but at that time we knew no better, and didn’t have a clue, not a clue, how dramatically things would change in the future.

Then there was Mars.

I was too young to join in with the Viking feeding frenzy, when the twin US probes landed on Mars in 1976; I didn’t really know the mission was even “on” to be honest. My real fascination – i.e a fascination I fed by actually buying books and magazines, and actively seeking out TV programmes about it – didn’t take hold until the end of the seventies, when the space shuttle era was about to begin. No. I came to Mars later – and I can remember exactly how, when, and where I fell head over heels in love with Mars.

I was at Grammar school, in Cockermouth, hanging around the art room after an Art class, killing time before heading home, and I started to browse through The Big Pile Of Magazines the art teacher kept at the back of the room, a source of reference pics of plants, animals, buildings, whatever we needed. There was all sorts in there – TV magazines, travel magazines, beauty magazines and, of course, the obligatory tall, tottering pile of canary yellow National Geographic magazines, always useful for finding pictures of brightly-coloured rainforest birds, mud-caked elephants, or bizarrely-dressed tribespeople from somewhere unpronouncable. I was working my way down the pile, checking one spine after another, casually flicking them onto the table, when I came across one that made me stop in my tracks: it was the January 1977 issue, and on its cover was a picture of a big red rock sitting on a bed of orange red sand. On the right hand side, in small white letters, the words “Mars / As Viking Sees It / The Search for Life”…

Mars. Really? There were pictures of Mars in there? Great! Let’s have a look…

…and that was it. I was smitten, absolutely knocked head over heels by the magazine’s images of golden sands, eroded rocks and polar caps. The scientists in the photos were “of the time”, shall we say – lots of sideburns, collars with the wingspan of a hang-glider and suits a dozen different shades of brown – but the images, oh the images…

That National Geographic was published in January 1977. The Vikings landed in July 1976. It had taken six months to get the pictures into the magazine, as long as it had taken the probes to fly to Mars. But that was the way it was in those days. Years later, when the Voyager 2 probe flew past Uranus and Neptune, to have pictures from the encounters to show in my Outreach talks, I had to tape “Horizon” off BBC2, then photograph images off the screen – using my fancy Practika SLR camera on its tripod, pausing the tape when a nice pic of Miranda, Triton or the Great Dark Spot appeared – onto slide film, SLIDE film, which I then sent off for processing (or took down to Boots if I was in a hurry, but they kept losing slides, or messing up their processing, so I tended to use postal companies), using the slides which came back in my Outreach talks, showing them in schools or church halls, or to my astronomy society. Yes, it was a pain, but that was how things were then, we didn’t know better.

Fast forward in the TARDIS to May 15th, 2012. It’s a different world. National Geographic is still on the shelves every month, so are Astronomy and Sky and Telescope, but we don’t rely on them for photographs of planetary encounters any more. Now we have the Internet. In 2012 the Internet IS The Force from Star Wars, it binds everything together, and even connects Earth to other worlds in the solar system, in a way. And now, when a probe encounters a planet or asteroid, or comet, whizzing past it, orbiting it or landing on it, we can see the first “raw” images a matter of hours later. Even better, we can download them, save them onto our own personal computers with just a couple of mouse clicks, to look at them again and again, and even play about with them, using image processing software to bring out subtle details on them, or join them together, or make 3D images out of them. Or, exorcising memories of paused video tapes and slide film, paste them into a Powerpoint presentation to show that same night. It’s science fiction made real, it really is. If anyone had told me back in 1986, as I showed my dark-band-across-the-middle slides of Voyager 2’s Uranus encounter, in drafty village halls or community centres, that one day I’d be able to see images from Saturn, taken just the day before, on a computer screen in my own home, and that I’d be able to copy them all, for free, and do things with them, and show them to people that same night, I’d have laughed at you and thought you were a bit nuts. But today, at work, during my break, I went online on my phone, went to the Cassini website, and saw images from Saturn taken just a couple of days ago.  Then I came home from work, turned on my PC, went online, went to the Exploratorium website, and saw images taken a matter of HOURS ago on Mars! Sorcery, surely!!!

But yesterday something happened which really brought home to me how much things have changed. I didn’t see it, I’ll admit. It was spotted by fredk, one of the members of the unmannedspaceflight.com forum. He was looking at this image, showing Oppy’s wheel tracks in the soft sands of Mars…

…and he that it had been posted on the Exploratorium website LESS THAN AN HOUR AFTER BEING TAKEN ON MARS…

!!!!

Now, just take a moment to think about that. Opportunity, having driven away from Greeley Haven, took that image of her own tracks, and sent it back to Earth. The image was received, and then automatically fed down some amazing image pipeline to the Exploratorium site, and then put on display there for all of us to see, the whole series of events happening in LESS THAN AN HOUR. That’s almost “live”. Live images from Mars. Imagine that.

So, we’ve gone from this, to this

I know what you’re wondering – is that THE National Geographic? The one from the classroom? Well, yes, it is. And I’d love to be able to tell you that I did the right thing, that I went and asked the art teacher if I could have the magazine, because I was really interested in and inspired by the pictures, and that the teacher, with a serene, satisfied, fulfilled smile, told me of course I could, because she was delighted to do anything she could to fan the sputtering flame of my curiosity… but I can’t. I nicked the magazine, sneaking it into my bag and taking it home, to read again and again and again. And in the years that have passed since then I’ve taken it off the shelf countless times, to relive my magical first date with Mars. Joking apart, it’s actually very special to me.

So, here we are, May 2012, and we need to say a HUGE “thank you” to whoever is responsible for getting these images on the web so quickly after they’re sent back from Mars, because this is what makes the MER mission so special – the way we’re allowed to participate in the mision by seeing its images quickly. Not just that, but also the way the MER team have made themselves so accessible, always happy to answer questions, give interviews, and share their passion and excitement. From Day #1 this has been a very, very special mission, and when it’s eventually over we’re all going to look back on it as a true Golden Age of planetary exploration. I hope that the people running the MSL mission follow the example of the MER team and release pictures quickly and generously, and encourage public participation in the mission as happily as the MER team has.

Or is there another explanation? is something funny going on, out there on Mars? I’ve found a secret directory on the Exploratorium site, which suggests Oppy has found a way of speeding things up…

🙂

Anyway, what else has Oppy been up to? Well, she’d now driven over, (almost) as planned, to that area of bright, wind-blown dust, and she’s starting to study it. Here are my latest images, produced from the raws sent back over the past couple of days…

 

 

(That’s an animation, you may need to click on it to set it going…)

Here are the “North Pole” dunes – several images stitched together and messed about with enhanced…

…and a colourised view of of part of them…

And finally for this time, a 3D “farewell” view of Greeley Haven…

That’s all for now. Hope you’ll check back here soon for more pictures of Meridiani, hot off the press! 🙂

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One Response to From Mars to Earth…

  1. edaviesmeuk says:

    I was poking around on the ARPANet (early Internet in a grandfather’s-axe sort of way – there were about 250 computers on it by then) in the summer of 1976 during the run up to the Viking landings. Coming across some notices about distribution across that network of Viking data to the appropriate science teams I said to the other students looking over my shoulder wouldn’t it be great to be able to get data and pictures from these missions in near-real time. They laughed at me and thought I was a bit nuts.

    I remembered that as I was setting the panoramas taken by the Huygens probe as my Windows background sufficiently soon after they were taken that the light-time from around Saturn was a large part of the delay.

    You’re right – things have changed. It’s partly technical, of course, having the Internet and partly a social matter that the scientists and engineers feel they can and want to be so open about it.

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