The Probe and the Crater

Every now and then you come across an image that literally takes your breath away, that hits you so hard you skip a breath. This one did that for me today. (Definitely click for full-size.)

It was taken in 2008 by a camera onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The obvious, dominant element in the main image—that’s a crater 6 miles across, the scar of an ancient meteor impact. And that tiny speck drifting against this incredible landscape—that!—that is NASA’s Phoenix lander, a probe sent by humanity to explore that alien world. I’m still blown away by the sheer drama of this image—a tiny speck of humanity journeying across the solar system to another planet, its final, triumphant steps recorded by another such feat.

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I saw this picture today for the first time today (I must have missed it when it was first released) in a seminar talk by Michael Hecht, who headed the design and construction of an instrument onboard Phoenix that served as the lander’s chemistry lab, analyzing soil samples for signs of life or water. He proudly showed us images of his creation in the lab, called the Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer. It was an unassuming box, with four soil collection bins waiting for the little backhoe installed on Phoenix to dump in samples.

MECA in the lab

And then he showed us a picture taken from the Phoenix lander of that little, modest box on the surface of Mars, where its analysis provided humanity with our first knowledge of the chemistry of the soil of an alien world.

MECA on Mars

A murmur went through the crowd of scientists and students. “I always get a little emotional whenever I see this picture,” Hecht said (as I recall from memory). “It’s an incredible feeling to see something that you’ve built, from your own hands and sweat and tears, sitting on the surface of an alien world.”

I talked to Hecht afterwards and thanked him for including the HiRISE image. “It’s absolutely stunning, isn’t it?” he said. He went on to say that the bar had been set by the Phoenix team—and now the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is trying to 1-up them when their next Mars rover, Curiosity, arrives on Mars this August.

It was then that I started to appreciate the image on another level—how much effort went into planning it. Any photographer will tell you about the lengths they have to go to in order to do a location shoot, and how much planning it can take to turn an image in their mind into a photograph. Now imagine doing a location shoot but doing it from 230 million miles away, shooting a subject floating through the Martian atmosphere on a trajectory that can only be calculated, and shooting from a dolly rig orbiting the planet from 500 miles away from the subject. The work and forethought that went into realizing this image—ensuring that Phoenix would be suspended in front of the dramatic backdrop of the crater and that the orbiting MRO would be just in the right position to capture the intended composition—is amazing.

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I looked at Mars through a telescope tonight. I could see a red, circular disk, the image shimmering like a car on the horizon on a hot summer day. If I squinted hard enough and watched it shiver in and out of focus, I could almost convince myself I could see some surface detail, black patches here and there. I tried to imagine the plucky Phoenix probe, hurtling through Mars’ atmosphere of carbon dioxide in a fiery streak of plasma, and then parachuting gently over an utterly alien landscape—a machine wrought by human hands in a strange world.

Mars through telescope

I stepped back from the telescope, blinked, and looked back at Mars with my naked eye. Just a reddish point, suspended in the night sky over the Boston skyline.

It’s moments like these when I can hardly believe that we humans send things out there.

But we do. We are a spacefaring species. Pat yourself on the back.

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