Incredible new pictures of rock formations on Mars look almost banal, and that’s beautiful.
In 2003, Mars was at its closest point to Earth as it had been in decades, or maybe centuries. My then-girlfriend and I drove north, out of Chicago, away from the city lights, with a chintzy little telescope to see what we could see. We pulled onto a country road surrounded by cornfields, in mid-summer straining, and began to glass the sky. It was amazing, even with a $50 scope, what you could see. You could make out the outlines of craters, and maybe even mountains (it was hard to say what imagination had filled in). Though we had images from Mars, seeing it with your own two eyes was something else.
After a few minutes, a truck pulled up, and an older farmer, probably in his 50s, asked if we needed help, with that concerned kindness for car trouble mixed with a whiff of justified suscipicion. We told him what we were doing, and he was thrilled. He couldn’t stop looking at it, and neither could we. He kept exclaiming “Mars! I’m looking at Mars!”
It sounds condescending, and sometimes when I told the story I exaggerated the country accent, like an ass, but he said what we were all thinking. Because there is something incredibly powerful about the planet, and its mysteries. We all ask if it once had life, but are all slightly scared of the answer. It isn’t just that it changes our place in the cosmos and destroys most of our inherited religious wisdom. Personally, I would love to see that, and to see everything upeneded. No, it’s because even if it was the most simple, microbial life, and it is now gone, that means a planet can die. When we look at Mars we shudder, thinking its past could be our future.
Yesterday, NASA released new images of a rocky outcropping on Mars, and they are stunning for their clarity and strangeness.
From the NASA statement
The layered geologic past of Mars is revealed in stunning detail in new color images returned by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, which is currently exploring the “Murray Buttes” region of lower Mount Sharp. The new images arguably rival photos taken in U.S. National Parks.
Curiosity landed near Mount Sharp in 2012. It reached the base of the mountain in 2014 after successfully finding evidence on the surrounding plains that ancient Martian lakes offered conditions that would have been favorable for microbes if Mars has ever hosted life. Rock layers forming the base of Mount Sharp accumulated as sediment within ancient lakes billions of years ago.
On Mount Sharp, Curiosity is investigating how and when the habitable ancient conditions known from the mission’s earlier findings evolved into conditions drier and less favorable for life.
Yes well…that is an interesting question, isn’t it? Because look at these pictures. Not only are they incredibly clear, and sort of strange, but they look almost…normal. It’s a weird quality. The clarity of the camera makes the alien landscape look earthy, like a washed-out Southwest riverbed. And that makes them deeply strange.
Because, while there maybe isn’t anything like this exact sedimentation pattern on earth, it is pretty close. It’s rocks and sand, wind and water and time. And it adds up to not just death, not just desolation, but the utter annihilation of life. At one point, maybe, there were living beings on Mars, and now they are gone. They didn’t leave obvious traces, and they didn’t even leave memories. Even if at one point life there had evolved enough to where a creature had the dimmest recognition of self, even if that was just the recognition that hunger needed to be sated, that is wiped out.
That’s what makes Mars so terrifying. It isn’t that its people are going to invade us, it isn’t that it is blood red: it is that it is almost earth, but completely lifeless. It’s what earth could be. It’s what earth will be. This isn’t a global warming post, because Earth will survive man, and so will a lot of life (though we are the biggest interspecies murderers imaginable). Earth will get over us even if we erase ourselves as a species.
But one day it will be without life. Maybe that will be in a hundred million years, maybe it won’t be for billions. Maybe it’ll just be that last breathless and annihilating second before the exploding sun rips us apart (though as it expands it will fry off all life anyway). But one day we’ll be Mars, and all our existence erased. There won’t even be an Ozymandias; no stumps stick from sand.
Mars is a reminder that our planet is a lucky one indeed, but it is just one tiny little speck in the universe, and our winds and rocks are not so special. They are found everywhere, and everywhere the wind wears down the rocks as time erases what was once there, and finally, everything will be destroyed. There’s no chance that it won’t. It’s thrilling in a way, reminding us that all is vanity. But it’s also the stark recognition that, no matter how many times you click on the link at the top of the post, there will be a time when no one ever listens to David Bowie again. That’s lifelessness.