The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars (Excerpt)


It’s cold. So cold that the frost glittering on the rocks has been wrung out of the air itself, frozen and turned to ice. The Sun won’t rise for another hour, but it’s already light enough to see by, although too diffuse to cast shadows. Above you is a sky of pale pink and pastel blue, shot through with white, hair-thin streamers
that might be high clouds chasing away from the dawn.

The landscape is flat: not sheet flat, but plains flat, badlands flat. It’s rough and rubbly, dominated not by the few variations in height, but by its sheer breadth and width and its utter emptiness. The distance to the horizon is an illusion you’ve not yet got used to: you think you can see forever, but it’s not even the distance of a parkrun. Still, you know, because you’ve seen the maps and the satellite images, that from where you stand there’s nothing between you and the frozen north pole but an unending, monotonous flatness, punctuated by craters of every size that have been gouged out of the ground. The geography only begins to change far to the south, with a planet-girdling slope that climbs inexorably upwards for a hundred kilometers until it plateaus on the pockmarked highlands. Also beyond your closely curved horizon to the south-west, out of sight but looming heavily on your mind, is the land between the red soil and the bright sky where the giant volcanoes squat. They manage to be vastly broader than they are tall, but they still grow so high that they reach above even the clouds.

You feel light because you are light – a third of your usual weight. Walking is difficult. You’re used to a falling gait, a motion that rocks you from right to left and back again, heel to toe. Using it here is not just inefficient but unwieldy. You try a few steps, as if you’re a toddler again, and find yourself slow and unbalanced. Then you remember what they taught you and move into some- thing halfway between a skip and a lope. You spend far longer in the air than you ever thought possible. Bringing both feet down within seconds of each other, you push off again for another meters-long stride. It’s too similar to the dreams you’ve had of running without touching the ground to be entirely comfortable. The soil is brittle and it snaps and squeaks as you press your deeply ridged boots into it. The dust that coats the planet from top to bottom is clay-fine, almost oily. Where it becomes loose, it drifts in persistent, dirty puffs and sticks to everything. Your bright white spacesuit is no longer pristine and it’ll never be clean again. You wear an ochre cast, deepening in color towards your feet. It’s your badge, your sign, and it’ll mark out your stay in days and weeks as it darkens.

The rover you’re going to be using this morning is both basic and robust. It’s little more than an oversized electric go-cart, designed so that as little can go wrong with it as possible. Its frame is made from open struts of lightweight – but strong – alloy, and its four wheels are independently powered by the fuel cell slung underneath the driver’s seat. Each wheel is as tall as you are, and the treads around the circumference consist of hundreds of ridged metal plates. Each plate is sprung to provide suspension, and the amount of springiness is controlled by a computer, allowing the vehicle to navigate soft sand as well as hard rock and ice. The cargo you’re driving is strapped to the back of the chassis, already covered in a thin film of dust.

You swing yourself up easily – climbing in one-third Earth’s gravity isn’t a problem – and settle in the driver’s seat. The controls are designed to be foolproof. There’s a steering wheel, a trigger to accelerate and brake, and a switch to put the whole vehicle in reverse. The screen in front of you tells you where you are and, critically, how much power you have left. You know that if you abuse that, you’re going to be in real trouble. Someone will have to come out and find you before your air runs out. And per- haps they won’t make it in time. The only thing keeping you alive at the moment – and every moment you’re outside – is the suit you’re wearing. Your life is measured in the minutes of air on your back and the watts in your batteries. If the tanks run empty, you will die quickly. If the heater circuits fail, you will die slowly. You start up the rover and steer steadily north. Compass directions are by convention only, because there’s nothing for a magnetic compass needle to find here. All your navigation is done by reference to the small constellation of satellites in orbit overhead. The landscape itself gives very few clues and you can see so little of it anyway. The best way back home is to follow your own tire tracks, which will persist for a few weeks before being covered by wind-blown dust.

You suppose you’re closing on your intended destination. The ground becomes more uneven, with broken blocks of stone buried beneath the subtly ridged terrain. If you go too fast, you could hit one of these sharp-edged rocks and break a tire-plate. You’ve been here for less than a week and already the metal of the wheels is starting to look pitted – not just mechanical wear, but chemical erosion from being in contact with the corrosive soil. So you slow down and make a special effort to steer around the most obvious obstacles protruding from the surface – a surface that seems to have flowed in the past, as if it was once thick mud that simply lost momentum and froze in place.

Your position in your seat makes you realize that you’ve been driving subtly uphill for a while. The terrain is increasingly chaotic, as if something has struggled its way out of the plain and dragged the subsurface with it. There are ridges of rock, hard hills emerging from the pitted plain, fringed by skirts of frost-damaged rock and curtains of land-slipped debris. The going is tough. You find yourself driving wheel-first into shallow hollows and losing sight of the horizon until you claw your way back out again.

Simon Morden. (CREDIT: Lawrie Photography)

The gradient gets steeper. There is more rock – not just bro- ken, but shattered, loose and open-jointed, both fragile and lethal. There are cliffs that you cannot possibly ascend, but there is also a way up – not exactly smooth, but passable with care. There are banked ridges to contend with, like driving up concrete steps, but finally, at the limit of your range and the capacity of the rover’s fuel-cell battery, you reach your destination, the place to plant your weather station. It’s just one part of the expanding network of remote data collection sites designed to feed the appetite of scientists back on Earth. Tomorrow, there’ll be another.

You climb down from your seat and look out over the crater that stretches before you. You can’t see the other side, and the effect is such that you seem to be standing at the edge of a kilometer-high curving cliff with no end. The ramparts are overlapping arcs of wall where collapse and time have carved out bites and thrown the digested remains at their feet. You could, you think, plot a course that would get you down there, but not today and not from where you are now. You make sure to stand away from the edge and not make any sudden moves. Even if you survived the fall, you wouldn’t live long enough for the climb back up.

The crater floor has more of the same pitted terrain as the landscape you’ve just driven through, together with sinuous lines and grooves that superficially look like dried-up riverbeds. There are sheltered lees where dust has accumulated into low, rolling dunescapes. In the far distance is a hint of a mountain: triangular, jagged, with more than a hint of archetype about it. This central peak is nearly a kilometer tall, base to summit, standing alone.

The Sun, a cool pale disc, sends streams of light over the edge of the crater wall, progressively illuminating the exposed layers of rock as it rises; the deep shadow and bright light are enough of a contrast to make you squint and wait for your eyes to adjust. Where the sunlight hits, the temperature soars from its night-time low of minus seventy. The frost turns to fog, twisting and swirling, quickly vanishing, and the dust-covered surface glows its traditional rust-red. Behind you, low on the horizon, the bright spark of a moon traverses the sky, its motion peculiar and unsettling.

This is Mars, as it is today, at this hour, this moment. This is Mars, dominated now by ice and time – not inactive, but its processes moving at a glacial speed.

Later in the afternoon, insubstantial winds will pick up and blow the fine dust around half the globe, a distant echo of when those same winds could tear and howl. Where there is now ice, there was once an ocean. Where there is now pink haze, there were once black clouds of volcanic ash. Where this crumbling, moth-eaten crater now sits, the roots of mountains once shook with the violence of impacts so great they threatened to break the planet apart. Mars was built from stories such as these, chapter after savage chapter, creating an entire, glorious world out of grains of dust and starlight.

Mars is unique and everything about it is extraordinary. Even – especially – its future.

Excerpt from Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars by Simon Morden. Published by Pegasus Books, 2022

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