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August 08 2012

Curiosity rover: why does sci-fi always look more marvellous than reality? | Jonathan Jones

These ordinary looking views of Mars sent by Nasa's rover are beautiful and moving precisely because they are so ordinary

The landscape of Mars glows in a dust-rich sunset. The sky is yellow. The rocks are red. It is a place of – literally – unearthly beauty. But have we already ruined it? In the week that Nasa landed its latest robot explorer Curiosity on the surface of Mars, this picture reveals the wreckage of earlier landers cluttering up the Martian desert, reducing its pristine strangeness to a dumping ground of human space dreams. How typical of the earthlings to make a wasteland of Mars.

No, wait, I misread the caption. This is not a picture taken by Curiosity in its first week on Mars. It is a digitally created image by artist Kelly Richardson. It imagines what Mars might look like in 200 years if we keep sending probes there. It is, in other words, science fiction.

Why does science fiction always look more marvellous than the real landscapes of alien worlds? The pictures that have so far come from Curiosity are nothing like as grabbing as this fantastic image. The first photograph it sent showed a skewed vista of dust and heat with just the misty outline of a horizon. Nasa had to patch it into previous images of the planet to make sense of it. It's all very well scientists saying these first pictures from Curiosity are the most beautiful things they have ever seen – the red planet is far more spectacular in art and other fantastic images.

Richardson is in a very long line of artists who have pictured Mars. Long, long ago, Mars was a god. Botticelli's painting Venus and Mars depicts the god of war lulled to sleep and invokes the magical influence of his planet.

This might seem like ancient baloney but it is no more far fetched than the Mars of sci-fi. A lurid painting of Martians disporting themselves under the planet's glorious sky in a landscape of pyramids, towers and blue canals epitomises the image of Mars that was dreamed up in 20th science fiction before Viking, the first unmanned Nasa lander, started to reveal Martian realities in 1976. Mars was for a long time the favourite planet for imagined alien life. It seemed utterly alien and the "canals" visible on its surface from Earth were held to be the work of some grand civilisation. Even today, science fiction images of Mars outdo mere reality. A 2008 Doctor Who special pictured Mars as the home of a base where the first human explorers are attacked by watery beings from below. A base – there's always a base. Bases are so much more glamorous than unmanned computerised buggies with cameras on front.

Enough. The scientists are right of course. The comparative dullness of Curiosity's first pictures from Mars is the point (and their vagueness will be forgotten when it starts sending back high-definition images). These ordinary looking views of Mars are beautiful and moving precisely because they are so ordinary.

The ordinariness of Mars is its magic. It looks like a red desert on Earth because it is the mirror of Earth – as are all planets everywhere. Everything in the universe is made of the same elements, according to the same physical laws. The discovery that nothing in space is truly "alien" and every object out there (or rather out here – we're just another thing in space) started when Galileo aimed his telescope at the moon. From one point of view the history of astronomy and space exploration is the story of how the universe became banal. But this banality is more glorious than any imaginary spectacle of an alien world where little green men drive motorboats up and down their glittering canals.


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August 06 2012

The miracle of a thumbnail image from Mars

Last night, I stayed up late to watch the NASA livestream of the Curiosity rover landing. It seems to have been an unmitigated success: each step of the entry and landing process, even that crazy sky-crane maneuver, was performed flawlessly.

As Travis Beacham put it on Twitter:

Although there were tearful hugs and high-fives and all manner of cheering when “Touchdown!” was called, the wonderment built to a real climax when the first thumbnail image came through. It was small, in black and white, and showed the Martian horizon in the background, with the wheel of the rover in the foreground.

Shortly thereafter, a slightly larger version was displayed: still black and white, but with enough resolution to show dust on the glass. A second one followed a few minutes later, showing the rover’s shadow on the ground. Cue the “pics or it didn’t happen” jokes, as well as the rapid proliferation of Photoshopped spoofs.

Image from the Curiosity rover on Mars
One of the first images from the Curiosity rover.


In our micro-culture of the moment, obsessed with photo sharing and images, this tiny thumbnail still seemed like a miracle (albeit a required one). A picture really is worth a whole lot of words. But have you ever stopped to think about what it takes to plan for that from Mars?

We take for granted being able to snap a great-looking picture and send it wirelessly to almost anywhere we want with the tap of a few icons, but transmitting images back from another planet is a complicated process.

I couldn’t help but think about the images that came back from the Phoenix lander in 2008, and the excellent chapter J.M. Hughes, principle software engineer for the imaging software on Phoenix, wrote in Beautiful Data:

The challenge was to devise a way to download the image data from each of the cameras, store the data in a pre-allocated memory location, process the data to remove known pixel defects, crop and/or scale the images, perform any commanded compression, and then slice-and-dice it all up into packets for hand-off to the main computer’s downlink manager task for transmission back to Earth.

And all of this must be done carefully, sparingly, in order to conserve resources. As Hughes put it, “A spacecraft is an exercise in applied minimalism: just enough to do the job and no more.”

In honor of the Curiosity’s inspiring success, we’re making Hughes’ chapter available here. Reading about some of the design trade-offs required in building and successfully deploying the imaging software on a Mars spacecraft makes Curiosity’s achievement all the more amazing.

Images from the Curiosity rover can be found here.

Curiosity image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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