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No Place Like Home

Posted By Bill Dunford

21-04-2013 15:07 CDT

Topics: pretty pictures, amateur image processing, Earth, Mars, Mars Exploration Rovers, Opportunity, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Earth analogs

No matter how far we venture into space, there are reminders of Earth. Take Mars, for example. In some ways it's home to such alien landscapes: impact craters, impossibly tall volcanoes, mazes of canyons, ice spiders. Yet it's been widely remarked that some places on the planet look a lot like the deserts we know. If you don't believe me, take a look at these pictures I took not far from my home in Utah.

Sibling Worlds

Mars images: NASA/JPL/Cornell University/University of Arizona. Earth images: Bill Dunford.

Sibling Worlds
Can you tell which is Earth and which is Mars? On the left, images from the Red Planet as captured by the Opportunity rover and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. On the right, locations of roughly the same scale in and around Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Click the image for a longer caption and more details.

Mars even has clouds that sometimes drift lazily through the afternoon sky. In some ways, Mars is not so different from the Earth, and vice versa. They are both very real places. The same laws of light and stone and wind are at work on both worlds, resulting in portraits of recognizable siblings.

I wish there were a word for this sense of alienness-yet-familiarity in the landscapes of other planets. "Terrasimilitude"?

On the other hand, Mars and Earth are very different in such important ways. The air on Mars is thinner than at the top of Mt. Everest, colder than in Antarctica, drier than in Death Valley. In fact, despite decades of science fiction that almost makes one forget it, we have never found, anywhere, sure signs of life beyond the Earth. Despite all our travels, all our straining at the traces of evidence, our planet is--as far as we know--utterly unique.

There is something about studying other worlds that brings the importance of our own sharply into focus. In fact, I think this ranks high among the many benefits that space exploration offers.

After poring over orbital views of Mars' empty plains and pondering the speculative possibilities of underground oceans in the outer Solar System, there is the Earth rising over the lunar horizon in pictures sent by spacecraft. It's a gem. It is immediately obvious that something very strange and almost too wonderful for words is happening within its blue-white curves.

Every trip I take into Earthly deserts reminds me of that singular beauty and the priceless shelter offered by the homeworld. Everywhere, everywhere you look on this planet—even in the desert—there is water, air...and life.

During one expedition in Utah, a cloudburst descended on the mesas and unleashed torrential rain for about ten minutes before it swept on. Then the flash floods came. Dust-red water surged suddenly through every dry channel. We followed it down to the edge of the canyon, and watched it spill over the cliff sides. A few minutes later the entire event ended as fast as it began...but the countryside bloomed for days afterward.

Desert Waterfall

Bill Dunford

Desert Waterfall
Although the deserts of Earth can look like Mars, reminders that the home planet is a unique oasis are everywhere. Here, a cloudburst passed over the desert at Dead Horse Point, Utah, then was gone within minutes. A surge of mud-red water pushed its way over the cliff side. Half an hour later the stream was dry again, but the entire countryside smelled like flowers for days afterwards.

On Earth Day and every day, it's worth remembering that Mars is nice to visit. But there’s no place like home.

See other posts from April 2013


Read more blog entries about: pretty pictures, amateur image processing, Earth, Mars, Mars Exploration Rovers, Opportunity, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Earth analogs


Tom Collins: 04/22/2013 05:38 CDT

I worked in the space program for 37 years, 33 of them at KSC. I was driving in western Colorado between Debeque and the Grand Mesa when I was absolutely astonished to view an area that could have been seen at many locations on Mars. My first thought was that I hoped those nonbelievers don't see this as they will surely think the Mars landing were faked and in fact filmed right here. I took many pictures and sent them to my friends still at KSC. The comparison between Earth and Mars landscape was uncanny.

Bill Dunford: 04/22/2013 06:41 CDT

Thanks, Tom. It really is uncanny sometimes. Heh, I hadn't even thought about fueling conspiracy theories. Well, I'm pretty sure that at least the Curiosity mission is real. I was there when it launched, and I think the launch would be one of the most expensive/hardest things to fake!

Bill Dunford: 04/22/2013 06:47 CDT

And because I never get tired of telling the story, here it is! You must have seen some amazing sights during your career.

Bob Ware: 04/22/2013 08:50 CDT

Those are some really excellent comparisons! Thanks for the effort to show them! Have you ever thought about getting a geologist and doing your own book on planet/moon comparisons? Luna/Mercury; Callisto/Ganymede etc.

Bill Dunford: 04/24/2013 08:40 CDT

Thanks, Bob. Interesting idea!

Bob Ware: 04/24/2013 09:39 CDT

You're welcome Bill.

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