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The Martian landscape is magical but mundane – though it would be a mistake to start taking it for granted

28 May 2021

Last week, China’s Zhurong rover successfully trundled onto the surface of Mars, and returned its first images of the red planet to Earth. It has become the third rover operating on Mars, joining NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance; hopefully next year they will be joined by a fourth, the European-Russian Rosalind Franklin.

Hopefully, anyway. The successful landing of Zhurong and Perseverance, and the runaway, years-long triumph of the Curiosity, Spirit and Opportunity rovers, means we risk becoming a little blasé about these missions. They require a tremendous coincidence of expended treasure, technological mastery and simple luck. Temperamental scientific equipment is put through the hell of rocket launch and landing, and then called upon to function in exotic and unpredictable conditions, operated by remote controls with a minutes-long lag. But function they do – Opportunity was launched in 2003 and transmitted until 2018, when it was silenced by a dust storm. Perseverance was accompanied by the Ingenuity helicopter, which has successfully taken off and landed within the Martian atmosphere. These are miracles of human endeavour.

From this endeavour has come remarkable riches. There’s science, of course, and a torrent of insights into the nature of our planetary neighbour. But alongside this has been an almost daily succession of something that even non-specialists can appreciate: pictures from another world. Portions of the surface of Mars can be vicariously enjoyed and admired in some detail.

The second flight of the Ingenuity rover on 22 April 2021, as seen by the Perseverance rover.

The second flight of Ingenuity on 22 April 2021, as seen by Perseverance. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

Martian landscapes are often not much to look at. Wide deserts of powdery sediment, studded with lumps of rock. Rippled dunes of chocolatey sand. Ashy mounds littered with coalish boulders. Wind-carved outcroppings. Parched ridges and escarpments. In the distance, hazy lines of hills. The weather may be dry, but it is never delightful. Further from the sun, with a thinner atmosphere, Mars’s best days have washed-out light with grey skies; when the dust kicks up, it has a smoggy, nicotiney quality. But these scenes have immense power. Part of this is admiration of the technical effort that has gone into obtaining these views; part is their sheer inaccessibility. A rover moves, and takes new images, and we wake up a morning or two later and look at our phones and see a perspective that no human has seen before. Every couple of days. It certainly beats the news from this planet.

At times, the humdrum quality strikes the viewer. The gravel, the dirt, the grey sky – it’s an overcast  day on a building site. But the sheer dusty mundanity of some of the images only underscores the wonder – how strange, and oddly privileged, to look upon Mars and think ‘nothing special’. The Travis Perkins moments set the Lewis and Clark glimpses of a new world in proper contrast. Steadily, daily, Mars is already being colonised, by our gaze if not by our footsteps. Rugged and rusty, it feels more real and near than the black-skied, hard-lit Moon. Mars been a vivid fiction for decades, in the hands of writers from H.G. Wells to Kim Stanley Robinson. Now the real place is beginning to work on our imaginations.

‘It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man,’ Henry David Thoreau wrote in 1848, ‘and yet we have not seen pure Nature unless we have seen her thus vast and drear and inhuman.’ Thoreau had visited Mount Ktaadn (now Katahdin) in the interior of Maine, then part of the American ‘frontier’; his reaction is close to horror. (The essay was republished in The Maine Woods in 1864.)

‘I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work,’ Thoreau continued. ‘This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. […] It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste-land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet earth.’

Mt. Ktaadn (1853), Frederic Edwin Church.

Mt. Ktaadn (1853), Frederic Edwin Church. Yale University Art Gallery

At precisely that time, the American frontier was being depicted by artists, notably the Hudson River School, and packaged by them into something that could be considered by Americans without the awful shock experienced by Thoreau. In 1853 Frederic Edwin Church painted Ktaadn, making the mountain the stately backdrop to a largely imagined landscape of pasture and industry. The settlements are dignified by their majestic surroundings, not threatened by them. It is an invitation. The new art of photography – such as the work of Carleton Watkins in the American West, and Samuel Bourne in the Himalayas – also served to aestheticise these ‘wildernesses’ and define what they meant. Watkins and Bourne represented these places as empty of people, or with their human figures marginal and insignificant. ‘Within this perspective,’ Kevin DeLuca and Anne Demo have written, ‘nature functions as spectacular object rather than as inhabitable space.’ Sandeep Banerjee has written that the picturesque ordering of Bourne’s Himalayas represents an ‘epistemic colonization of the mountains, and by extension, the Indian subcontinent.’

Knowing the role unheedingly played by art and photography in the colonialism of the 19th century, we should take a lively moral interest in the slow revelation of Mars. We are shown a pristine, unowned wilderness, in images that come to us bathed in the beneficent light of science. To most, they are a curiosity. But intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regard them envious eyes, and slowly and surely draw their plans. We can be reassured that there are no native Barsoomians to be erased, but that doesn’t mean that our arrival there will be a utopian adventure. The billionaire private citizen most interested in Mars colonisation has already outlined a plan for the workforce of his bases that resembles indentured servitude. Mars is beautiful, and it’s getting closer. We should watch it carefully.

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