Exploring Mars

Exploring Mars

If you share my fascination with the Red Planet, there are a couple of things I think you’ll enjoy, so before I head off deeper into the Solar System, I think some recommendations are in order.

How to use Google Mars

Enjoy flying around our planet using Google Earth?  You can now do the same for Mars and the Moon.  You can have a quick look around online here but it’s much more fun to use their full environment:

  1. Download Google Earth – any version from 5 will have the Mars capability.
  2. Open the program and click on this icon in the top menu bar:  You’ll get a dropdown of planet options: chose Mars.
  3. In the View menu, make sure you have Atmosphere, Sun and Water Surface turned off.
  4. Open ‘Tools’ -> ‘Options’ -> ’3D’.  Make sure ‘show terrain’ is ticked.
  5. Pick an interesting area and zoom in.  You can pan around and see things in 3D by holding down the Shift key on your keyboard as you hold down your left mouse button and move the cursor.
  6. Olympus Mons and the Tharsis Montes in colourized terrain. (Source: Google Earth)

    In the bottom left menu, there are loads of options to play with.  One good one is the Global Maps option: if you click ‘colorized terrain’, you’ll see the topography of Mars – beautiful and very revealing.

  7. Also down there is the ‘Spacecraft Imagery’ area.  Much of the high resolution mapping I and others have been doing recently is on the basis of HiRISE images.  If you select that option, small red rectangles will show up all over the planet (zoom in if you can’t see them at first, they’re pretty small).  Click on the red square within those rectangles to get a link to the image’s ‘observation information page’.  That’s where you can see the images at full size and, if one’s available, an anaglyph 3D version of the image.  You’ll need red/blue glasses to view those – very cheap to buy online and well worth it!  I got cardboard ones here and cooler shades here
  8. You can also check out the work of the rovers: open up ‘Rovers and Landers’ in the side menu then pick a mission.  The routes they took and some amazing panoramas are in there.  I was particularly amazed by the data for the Spirit and Opportunity Rovers. Which leads me to my other recommendation…

Roving Mars by Steve Squyres

Roving Mars by Steve Squyres (Copyright: Hyperion)

Steve Squyres was the Principal Investigator (PI) on the Mars Exploration Rover mission which sent out Spirit and Opportunity.  The rovers got to Mars in 2004 and not only hugely outlived their projected lifetimes, they provided ground truth evidence that there was once abundant water on the surface of Mars.  This is the story of how he got NASA to fund the mission, how his team developed them and what happened during the initial part of the mission on the planet’s surface.

Surprisingly considering how talented this guy is in his own field, he has a wonderful lightness of touch and this is an incredibly readable and enjoyable book.  The obstacles in the way of the mission were enormous and you often find yourself in despair along with him despite the benefit of hindsight.  Even when you’re grinding your teeth with frustration to get those rovers to Mars, though, the twists and turns don’t fail to be gripping and involving.  As well as the practicalities, the character of everyone involved is very well drawn so you feel like you’re in amongst them as part of the team.

Lovely stuff – I thoroughly recommend it.  It’s at Amazon here or as an Ebook too if you’re in the US or Canada.  There’s also an IMAX 3D movie that I’d love to see.

And finally…

Before I leave you, a list of my favourite Mars-related things would not be complete without a link to xkcd’s Spirit.  Heartbreaking!