Friday, June 22, 2007

2006 Book of the Year

Allright, it's almost 7 months late, but I've finally gotten around to picking the Daily Doubter 2006 Book of the Year. Drumroll ..................................

Postcards from Mars: The First Photographer on the Red Planet by Jim Bell

(image Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

When I was a child in elementary school I remember that every morning before school I would go into the library and check out a book. One of my favorite things I ever checked out was a 9 or 10 part series on the planets and the solar system. I loved those books and they helped spark in me a life long interest and enthusiasm for science and space exploration.

This magnificent book brought back those childhood feelings of wonder and awe. It consists of pictures taken by the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers which have been traveling across the surface of Mars for about two years now, literally, taking photographs of the scenery. And it also tells the (surprisingly interesting) narrative of the work that went into getting those two rovers to Mars.

Looking through the book, the pictures are beautiful and amazing. They are striking in how crisp and detalied they are, in how they bring Mars to life, make it more 'real,' somehow. If the word had not been corrupted in the 80s by Bill & Ted and the Teenage Ninja Mutant Ninja Turtles, "awesome," would be the most appropriate description of the pictures. Since I lack the literary skill to come up with a better description, I'll use it it anyway - those pictures of the surface of Mars are truly awesome.

There is something amazing about looking at the first pictures of a sunset on another planet ... it's almost as if one is transported through space and time to walk on the surface of Mars... it just opens the mind to the wonders of the universe. At least, for me that is.

Images from the mission can be found here, and the image you see in the upper left was taken on May 19, 2005. It's original release caption reads

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit captured this stunning view as the Sun sank below the rim of Gusev crater on Mars. This Panoramic Camera (Pancam) mosaic was taken around 6:07 in the evening of the rover's 489th martian day, or sol. Spirit was commanded to stay awake briefly after sending that sol's data to the Mars Odyssey orbiter just before sunset. This small panorama of the western sky was obtained using Pancam's 750-nanometer, 530-nanometer and 430-nanometer color filters. This filter combination allows false color images to be generated that are similar to what a human would see, but with the colors slightly exaggerated. In this image, the bluish glow in the sky above the Sun would be visible to us if we were there, but an artifact of the Pancam's infrared imaging capabilities is that with this filter combination the redness of the sky farther from the sunset is exaggerated compared to the daytime colors of the martian sky. Because Mars is farther from the Sun than the Earth is, the Sun appears only about two-thirds the size that it appears in a sunset seen from the Earth. The terrain in the foreground is the rock outcrop "Jibsheet", a feature that Spirit has been investigating for several weeks (rover tracks are dimly visible leading up to "Jibsheet"). The floor of Gusev crater is visible in the distance, and the Sun is setting behind the wall of Gusev some 80 km (50 miles) in the distance.

This mosaic is yet another example from MER of a beautiful, sublime martian scene that also captures some important scientific information. Specifically, sunset and twilight images are occasionally acquired by the science team to determine how high into the atmosphere the martian dust extends, and to look for dust or ice clouds. Other images have shown that the twilight glow remains visible, but increasingly fainter, for up to two hours before sunrise or after sunset. The long martian twilight (compared to Earth's) is caused by sunlight scattered around to the night side of the planet by abundant high altitude dust. Similar long twilights or extra-colorful sunrises and sunsets sometimes occur on Earth when tiny dust grains that are erupted from powerful volcanoes scatter light high in the atmosphere.
I wish I could do this book justice in a review, but really, you have to just pick up a copy and flip through the gorgeous images to be able to appreciate it.

One thing that I would note is that it took about 810 million dollars to send the rovers to Mars and operate them for 90 days. Jim Bell, the lead scientist on the project, notes that we spent about 9 billion dollars on donuts last years. So how about this America? we can stop being fat and find some money to fund this amazing research that will and can inspire a new generation of children to enter into the sciences and explore the universe.

Here's the link to The 2005 Daily Doubter Book of the Year.

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