Hitching a Ride Around the Solar System

Fact and fiction meet on common ground provided by the Viking landers: Carl Sagan and Ray Bradbury both wrote about Mars but from very different perspectives.

It was really enjoyable to hitch a ride to the edge of the solar system through the Curiosity Corner link in Odyssey 22. It reminds us (as if we needed reminding) of the good science results coming in from probes around the planets and their satellites, and especially these days from the Curiosity rover on Mars.  However, I suspect that, if we’re absolutely honest with ourselves, it’s the photographs that many of us really look forward to seeing, because they show us what it would be like to stand on the surface of another planet.  Not an artist’s impression, or a science fiction writer’s description, or a computer simulation, no matter how good those might be, but the real thing.

Perhaps some of the Society’s younger Members may one day stand on Mars; but to all of us, whether we’ll ever be there in person or not, the inspirational value of such photography is enormous.  I remember a similar reaction on first seeing the Viking images from the surface of Mars in 1976.  Someone commented at the time that it looked like “just another desert,” adding that you could see that sort of thing all over the place on Earth.  No, it wasn’t “just” another desert – it was a desert on another world, and that was amazing.

The Luna and Surveyor probes failed to spot any evidence of Professor’s Cavor’s voyage to the Moon, as celebrated in the Odyssey Special: To the Moon and Back in a BIS Spaceship (Spring 2012). Rory Kinnear and Mark Gatiss fly the flag for King, country and the BBC in the 2010 version of H.G. Wells’s lunar expedition. (Image courtesy of the BBC and Can Do Productions)

The fleeting Venera images from the surface of Venus in 1975, and the Huygens photos on Titan from 2005, can inspire in just the same fashion.  Sadly, the NEAR Shoemaker probe wasn’t equipped to take a surface photo of Eros when it landed there in 2001 (though that, of course, was never what it was designed to do).  Many Apollo images from the surface of the Moon, particularly at the more interesting locations on the later missions, are spectacular; but people of my generation will never forget the first views of the lunar surface from Luna 9, and soon afterwards Surveyor 1, in 1966.

Which leads us to the question of what further impressive surface images we might look forward to seeing in years to come.  Just imagine views of the 10-mile high ice cliffs on Miranda, the geysers on Enceladus, or the mile-high escarpments on Mercury, and who knows what the sub-surface ocean on Europa may have to show us.

The fleeting glimpse of the surface of Venus provided by the Venera probe did little to dent the planet’s reputation a source of exotic life, as discussed in Odyssey 16: Siren Worlds – the Lure of the Inner Planets (June 2012).

It’s always been a shame that the Cydonia region of Mars became so associated with theories about the artificial nature of the supposed “Face on Mars,” which was conclusively shown by photos from Mars Global Surveyor – and subsequent probes – to be nothing more than a natural mesa. Putting aside all those ideas about a long-lost Martian civilisation, the whole region could provide some really dramatic images of the planet’s surface.  And then there are those strange mound-like features which might just form a geometrical pattern, as Horace Crater explained so intriguingly in his paper on the subject in the January 2007 issue of JBIS, following the BIS Archaeology for Space symposium in 2006.

Mark Carlotto’s paper in the same issue actually uses a statistical approach to satellite imagery to identify the potential for certain features on the Moon and Mars to be artificial.  He concluded that there are enigmatic features as close as the Moon that are more likely to be artificial than the infamous “Face.”(Go on, admit it, did you let a brief glimpse of a monolith flash across your mind at that point?)  Wouldn’t you like to see what these features look like close-up, even if they turn out to be entirely natural?  I would.

Now, it’s not for me, a Brit, to suggest how taxpayers in other countries might wish to spend their taxes; but there are undoubtedly some intriguing places in the Solar System which can provide spectacular surface images of other worlds.  The inspirational value of such photography will continue to be immense and you never know what they might find…

Richard Hayes, FBIS
Odyssey Guest Columnist

Dr Sheila Kanani’s talk on Planetary Moons takes place at the BIS on the 18 February 2013.

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