March: the story so far

Leading planetary geologist, geophysicist and science fiction author Simon Morden takes us on an objective, science-based tour of Mars.

“I am not glossing over controversies and claiming that we know more than we do about Mars,” says Simon Morden. “But we do know enough to tell a story of how Mars started and how it might end.”

Between those geological time bookends, he says, “the most intriguing thing is that the planet we all thought we knew as a dead, cold, and dry place is only sometimes like this.” By this he means that due to the orbital eccentricities of Mars, today “we could just watch Mars while it is asleep. And the chances of him waking up are really high.

He says that whether we don’t record active volcanoes or see vast bodies of water on the surface is a function of what times we live in and when we observe it.

Morden’s latest book – “The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars” – takes care to invite the reader to step away from the position of simply looking at a passive, albeit somewhat visible, feature of our night sky. . The way it does this is to tell the whole story of how the planet was formed 4.5 billion years ago, along the narrative path that leads to the geological age of cataclysmic meteor strikes, volcanoes. explosives and a vast ocean that spanned the entire upper hemisphere, until the Ice Ages when its atmosphere gradually cleared and escaped into space.

Today, perhaps because Mars is such a quiet place in comparison, we are able to send a succession of machine-based missions to explore and analyze the environment. As we speak, NASA’s Perseverance rover (or “Percy”) is on the Martian surface transmitting data to Earth, while a succession of Chinese, Russian / European and Japanese landers are expected to arrive in 2022. All of this means that it is high time we caught up with what we know of the history so far. Which is just as good, because Morden says if there is one “take away” from his book, it is that “Mars is not what we thought it could be”.

Morden’s book advertising material claims that “the red planet” is “as close as possible to eyewitness testimony to this incredible place.” Normally, objective journalists would tend to regard such editorial hyperbole as good-natured nonsense. But given that Morden has already held a piece of Mars in his hand, the claim may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

As a young post-doctoral scholar researching the magnetic properties of meteorites, he sent for a sample of alien material from NASA’s collection that he was able to literally pass under a microscope. The sample turned out to be what he thought was a dud so he sent it back.

“But I should have looked harder, questioned myself more,” he says, explaining that six months later a lab in Japan analyzed the gases trapped in the same sample and concluded that the previously misclassified ALH84001 – a serial number that alarmingly recurs in Morden’s memory, even after several decades – had formed on Mars and was now “far too valuable for a young researcher to work on.” I had missed my chance. I left university research. Eventually I became a science fiction writer. I even wrote stories set on Mars.

“The red planet: a natural history of Mars”

We read it for you

A compendium of the latest research on “All Things on Mars,” Simon Morden’s “The Red Planet” is written from a scholar’s perspective, but with the informed layman as the audience. Using data from Martian probes and the most recent theories on planetary geology, in just over 200 pages, the author condenses just about every bit of current thinking on the subject into a highly entertaining popular science book. Spanning everything from its origins to what is involved in bringing humans there, mountains of science treatises have been summed up by the former science boffin who now tells stories for a living. While you can probably find most of the actual data on your own, the real achievement here is how the threads of all of these academic papers have been woven into the rich narrative tapestry that is “The Red Planet”. Great stuff.

Humans have always been fascinated by Mars and ‘ever since the very first time people turned their telescopes to Mars in the 17th century, with all the optical problems that came with it, trying to look out of a muddy atmosphere and turbulent, we were able to choose the bare features ”. One of those features was the now infamous ‘canali’, a word poorly translated from Italian as ‘canals’ rather than (the good) ‘canals’, which by extension leads everyone to believe they were created by intelligent life: “and this has obviously caught the very popular imagination.

The idea that there was life on Mars “never really went away until the 1970s, when we were able to park Mariner in orbit. The photographs we recovered were quite revolutionary. I don’t think we can really say we knew anything about Mars – other than its crude features – until we recovered the Mariner photos. Additionally, Mariner arrived there during a colossal dust storm and so Mars looked like a giant pink billiard ball. As the storm subsided, we started to see the tops of the volcanoes. ”

Morden thinks that in terms of exploring the red planet, we are good at “launching more and more instruments on Mars.” But the information that comes back does not always answer our questions. We are drowned in data but we lack explanations. We can describe Mars in terms of “height, width and depth,” he says, but when it comes to putting the narrative together the way everything is ordered, “it’s still pretty ambiguous. We have a lot of theories, but we don’t have the concrete, established evidence that we would hope for. If you take Martian volcanism as an example: we know that volcanoes have an incredibly long lifespan. There is no plate tectonics and the hot spots do not move, which is why they are tens of kilometers long. But what we can’t say is how recently they broke. And we can’t tell because the most recent lava flows just look like a million, ten million, a hundred million years ago. As far as we can tell, the volcanism has stopped, but it’s a problematic judgment. The reason we can’t be sure is ‘we don’t have the samples, so we don’t know’.

The idea of ​​differentiating between what is known and what is conjectured is a hallmark of “The Red Planet” and lends it a tone of emphatic authority. But since Morden is much better known as a writer of science fiction novels with imaginative guesswork at the heart of his creativity, I’m forced to ask if there is a conflict of interest at work.

“Yes,” he replies. “I wanted the best for March. I wanted to tell a story that is not a dry, academic book. I wanted people to be as excited as I am about Mars, and there’s no denying that there are parts to the conjectural story of Mars that I want to be true. But my book is as objective as it gets.

“The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars” by Simon Morden is from Elliott & Thompson, £ 14.99

Making maps of Mars has a long and somewhat despicable history. Accurate maps – ones that could help us navigate on its surface – have only been around for fifty years since the Mariner 9 space probe took the first detailed photos of orbit in 1972. Before that, much of it that was drawn was not only inaccurate but fanciful and frankly wrong. The credit goes to the attempts of Johann Mädler in 1840, Richard Proctor in 1876 and Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1893; they used serious scientific observations to create their maps, but their technology – optical ground telescopes – was just too limited to detect anything other than the brightest, darkest features of Mars.

After Mariner 9 took photographs covering most of Mars, the process of creating the first suitable map could begin. Cartographers divided Mars into thirty quadrants: eight rectangles above and eight below the equator, six surrounding the north pole, six around the south pole, and the two polar regions themselves. Any attempt to represent a spherical object on a flat sheet of paper will distort it, so that the polar quadrants are not rectangles but are rather circular, and each quadrant varies in the size of the area it maps, up close. from seven square kilometers at the north and south poles, to 4.5 million for the equatorial quadrants. Each of these quadrants needed a name other than the prosaic nomenclature of MC-1 (short for Mars Chart) to MC-30. These thirty names got married to the regions they describe, and they roll across the tongue like a maritime forecast for another planet. As the maps became more detailed with each successive mission, they were populated with new names and the International Astronomical Union became the final arbiter of the nomenclature.

Excerpt edited from ‘The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars’ by Simon Morden, reproduced with permission.

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