A fantastic view of the surface of Mars

August 25, 2020 • 2:00 pm

Here’s a stunning ten-minute video of the surface of Mars composed of a series of images strung together (up to a thousand in one panorama), with the photos coming from three different rovers. The large panoramas are then scanned with a video camera, a technique made famous by Ken Burns in his documentaries.

I don’t know about you, but watching this, and seeing Mars in broad daylight, made me feel plenty weird. No human has set foot here, and perhaps, though the planet once had water, there was never life of any sort.  And yet we fly spacecraft there and plant fiendishly clever rovers that roam the surface and show us what it’s like.

Will humans ever make it there (a seven-month trip one way)? I’ll never know.

Off to get a haircut!


h/t: Paul

80 thoughts on “A fantastic view of the surface of Mars

  1. Amazing footage. I’m sure that humans will set foot on Mars one day, as per Buzz Aldrin’s “Get Your Ass to Mars” campaign. (Not so certain about how much help the donkey will be when we get there with him though).

  2. “there was never life of any sort.”

    Not so fast, microscopic life, especially extinct, can be awfully hard to see.

    1. Mars once had the environment where life initially evolved on Earth – the video even mentions the geological remains where Spirit got stuck.

      And seeing how the Venus orbiters now have seen from deuterium isotopes that Venus was habitable until about a billion years ago, it seems the system once had all the planets in the initially habitable zone inhabited. (And optimists thinks Venus’ cloud scattering grains are surviving cells, as well as that Mars still has crustal life.)

      1. You’re talking billions of years. Elon Musk has given himself a decade or so. I’m just saying, if you don’t stick to realistic time spans, you’re in for disappointment. I think Musk is a great salesman and a dreamer. Humans should better focus on the Earth and it’s immanent climate collapse. Send robots and build solar panels for our rooftops.

      2. If only Mars was where Venus is & Venus where Mars is, because Venus could then be a second Earth & terraformed, whereas Mars is too small & lacks the protection of a magnetic field… I recall suggestions in the 70s that humans seed the Venusian atmosphere with bacteria & or algae. There are certainly extremophiles that would thrive I’d have thought, but as the sun heats up Venus is going to go first…
        If only we could engineer moving planets into different orbits with fly-bys of smaller objects… 🤔

  3. Wow, that’s stunning. Well worth the time. Agree with busterggl’s comment above – the “was there ever life” question is still open.

  4. I doubt that the existence of ancient life on Mars can be disproved. An exhaustive search is implausible. So the question will remain open unless evidence is found that such life did in fact exist.

  5. Thanks paul and jerry. This is a spectacular video to me. I recall the lick observatory black and white images of the moon that were used to plan surveyer soft landings as the best we had in the early 1960s. Then was amazed each time we got increased resolution with lunar orbiter, surveyer, and then appollo video. Then came viking on mars and voyager, and new horizons. And now we have high resolution pics of all the planets, many of their moons, a comet and an asteroid. And on top of all that, now this spectacular video of the martian surface. What an engineering and technology ride it has been over my 72 years! Thanks to all the scientists, engineers, and technicians whose vision, skills and ingenuity made all of this happen as well as the politicians and taxpayers who have supported this work over the long haul.

    1. With such good coverage, we feel like we know these places pretty well. Why then should we spend the money and take the risk to send humans there? Part of me hopes we do because there is a part of me that can imagine the excitement of actually walking on another planet like Mars. But another part of me says, let’s save the loot and just be content with sending better robots.

      1. More and more it won’t be public loot so, presumably, people will have less reason to complain. People waste their own money on so much stuff of little value, I think Mars money won’t even register.

      2. Your comment agrees with a man who I’d be very loath to disagree with, namely the physicist Stephen Weinberg. He might say: Send robots at 1/10th the cost each, so send 10 for every manned mission you would have sent, and get 10 times the scientific observations–whoever pays, Tesla or Virgin or the general public.

        Also too bad the US experimental particle physics community was decimated by not building the Texas supercollider (I think it was called) also, with some of the extra money saved from manned stuff, including the International Space Station. The LHC near Geneva is smaller than it would have been. Of course Weinberg had a lot of himself invested in that, but lost in Congress.

        1. Can’t argue with his math on robotic vs manned missions. But it is not necessarily a binary thing. We could send mostly robotic missions and a couple manned ones — just to really get the adrenaline going.

          1. Agreed. That’s kind of where we are headed right now. Dozens of spacecraft have visited all the planets and some asteroids and comments. Humans seem destined to follow to some extent.

        2. I am aware of Weinberg’s position, and I lean toward agreement with him. Many others in the science community have said we have a destiny to “visit the stars”. Maybe that’s just a romantic notion.

        3. “He might say: Send robots at 1/10th the cost each, so send 10 for every manned mission you would have sent, and get 10 times the scientific observations–whoever pays, Tesla or Virgin or the general public.”

          The problem with this rationalization is that it isn’t remotely accurate. Our robots are no were near advanced enough to be able to equal the exploration abilities of a human. What a single Mars rover has done in its entire mission life. Opportunity operated for over 14 years and traveled a total of 28 miles (45 k) in that time. Curiosity, the most advanced rover to date, has been active for nearly 9 years and so far has traveled about 14 miles (22.6 k). The rover’s data gathering functions are similarly much slower than humans. A human could have done what Curiosity has done in a couple of weeks and collected far more data while they were at it.

          Some time in the future our technology will advanced to a point where we can build robots on a par, even better, than humans. We aren’t remotely close to that yet. This does not by itself refute the cost argument, only the premise that robots and humans are equivalent.

          1. Your timelines may be unrealistic. The rovers are there and more, better, rovers are on the way. Humans on Mars may be a decade or two away. Yes, they are more efficient explorers when fully in place, but the cost and risk ( how many astronauts will be lost? ) is very high. It’s a trade-off.

            1. Yes, but again, the premise that robots equal humans’ exploration capabilities, in the past, currently, and for some time into the future, is wrong. If it were so we would be using robots here on Earth much more extensively than we currently do. We don’t, even though here on Earth we don’t have the drastic latency problem we have with robots on Mars, because our robotics technology isn’t yet up to human level competency in several very significant ways.

              And most of the robots we use here on Earth are highly specialized single task robots. These sorts of robots would be of extremely limited utility for off Earth exploration. Multi-task robots are much more difficult and general purpose on something approaching a human level are still science fiction.

              There are other, better, arguments to favor robots over humans.

          2. As a general recommendation, and as an antidote to Darrelle’s ill considered and unsupported opinions, the following two books of essays by the physics Nobel prize winner and erudite writer Steven Weinberg might be recommended:

            ‘Third Thoughts: The Universe We Still Don’t Know’

            ‘Lake views: This world and the Universe’

            Partly because they both contain considerable discussion of this matter, as well as giving more than just personal opinions, I recommend both over the naysayer(s?) here concerning the use of robotic technology to make more progress for far less money.

            I would however be interested to hear of even a single piece of scientific knowledge about the moon from the visitors of 1968-1975 which could not be done at least equally well robotically in 2020 (including the returning of rock samples). Perhaps Darrelle, either from his own research (?), or from the literature, can weigh in on that.

            My remark was not a rationalization (as he terms it). But I do apologize to Weinberg for calling him Stephen, not the correct Steven, in case he happens to read this non-blog.

            We are fortunate to have the Perimeter Institute just down the road from my office at UWaterloo. So I can ‘brag’ that I did speak to him briefly once at a conference which was way out of my area, but not about this particular topic. Rather, it was about the conjectured ‘axions’, named by another physics ‘Nobeler’ Frank Wilczek. These particles are quite possibly the infamous dark matter, whose almost certain existence was discovered independently by the two of them.

              1. Surely you forgot to add ‘, and I wouldn’t be interested in the opinions of such a person as Steven Weinberg.’

                It is rather pompous of me to ” ‘brag’ “, as I termed it, about the luck of getting to ask him a question privately. But it seemed desirable to make one or two people aware that he is more responsible than all but a few physicists for the Standard Model of particle physics, and lots more as well. Look him up on books in Amazon, in case you do consult one of those two, and find it worth reading. There are about 10 more, mostly texts.

              2. What makes you think I’m not familiar with Steven Weinberg? What makes you think I don’t think highly of Steven Weinberg? Because I disagree with one of his premises?

              3. On August 25, 2020 at 8:36 pm , I wrote

                “a man who I’d be very loath to disagree with, namely the physicist Stephen Weinberg.”

                At least 3 times after that you said nothing specific mentioning Weinberg, except possibly
                in specifically mentioning what I’d written:

                “The problem with this rationalization is that it isn’t remotely accurate.”

                You have considerable confidence in your own, unspecific as to evidence, opinion of the superiority of human as opposed to robotic exploration. You have also avoided one or two specific questions from me.

                Recently we have from the Drumpfians plenty of examples of the sneering at scientific expertise in favour of some kind of macho bullshit, resulting in at least 100, 000 additional deaths. I’d prefer to assume your attitude (towards ignoring what I finally felt compelled to specifically suggest in the way of reading Weinstein) was not that bad, more a spirit of exploration which isn’t so exciting when not done in person and with pretty high danger.

                Actually that appeals to me considerably as well when it makes sense. I’ve just finished reading all three books by Adam Shoalts, a Canadian contemporary explorer of the north.

                I’m certainly guilty here (slightly) of what some mathematicians call “proof by intimidation”, a joke playing on “proof by contradiction”; that is I’m appealing to authority rather then specifically going over what Weinstein has said, and said far better then I could.

                But take a look at it and compare it with your own opinions expressed here.

              4. I appreciate that we are all human with all the foibles that entails, nothing to lose sleep over. But given your initial comment you can see that I’d be unlikely to be interested in having a conversation with you? And that your initial comment likewise suggested you weren’t either?

                Have a good weekend, I’m out.

      3. When it gets right down to it we go to places like Mars simply because some people want to. That’s it.

        As for the loot, just as with scientific research there is no telling what fruits will turn out to be useful, what they may be useful for or to what degree. The one thing that is for sure though is that doing those kinds of things in general, research, exploration, tend to bear lots of fruit.

        But with endeavors like SpaceX and similar efforts I think it is pretty easy to see some likely benefits. Going to Mars now won’t take a Manhattan Project level national effort, or even an Apollo Program level one. And the effort, the process of getting there, will certainly bear some fruits that are very useful for the project of mitigating and repairing the damages we’ve made to Earth.

        1. Well put. Those in the “fix the Earth before going to Mars” camp seem to imagine a world in which every person and every resource is devoted to that goal. That’s just not how it works.

        2. Let’s point out that most of the benefits could be had by sending robots. Humans on Mars would not likely provide anything extra.

          1. I don’t think that’s true. Humans are best at knowing what’s interesting to other humans. In short, they notice stuff. They can also adjust and fix things on the fly. Let’s say that the automated helicopter breaks a blade. A human can install a new one or put a piece of tape over the break. Current robots we could reasonably send to Mars can’t do those things. They can’t even do them on Earth unless designed specifically for that one job. Without a human on the spot, it will take years before a new, improved helicopter (or whatever) can be sent to Mars. And that’s assuming we can figure out what’s wrong. Another thing that humans are far better at than robots or humans back on earth scratching their heads.

          2. I think there is no doubt that humans could provide much extra, in our current era. Of course, it depends on the goals and your assessment of the worth and possible benefits of the endeavor. If you think there is nothing to gain by exploring Mars at all, well then of course you will never think humans could be of any benefit over robots.

          3. Well, you can send two drones. If one breaks, you’ve got a backup. Cheap insurance. A human Maytag repair woman on Mars is very expensive and you risk the loss of her life. A dead drone vs a dead human. What’s it going to be? Also, notice that robots have enjoyed remarkable good health and longevity. They will gradually become better at things humans do.

            1. Every day of every person’s life involves numerous risk assessments. For everything from crossing the street to choosing between taking a car or riding a bike, to have the sashimi or the tonkatsu, or to take a trip to Mars or not.

              Who’s risk assessment should take precedence?

  6. Amazing pictures. I think they said one of the rovers lasted 14 years up there. Not sure that people should be going, so much more expensive.

    1. Agree. The money spent on providing a habitat for humans would be better spent on robotic exploration and science. And robotic explorer technology is advancing so quickly, robot explorers may soon be better than human explorers. In fact, they may be already.

    2. Yeah, spending the kind of money it would take for a human expedition to Mars is just a vanity project at this point.

  7. Marvelous. There seem to be a lot of places where the sand would make walking very difficult. Since gravity on Mars is only 37% of Earth’s, it wouldn’t be quite as bad as it looks.

        1. Yes, and actually even Nordic (AKA cross country) skiing, with Bill Koch IIRC, had people training on beaches along coast lines. But I think you need to be slightly on the wet part from receding waves or the tide, so I guess that wouldn’t work on Mars. All terrain rollerskis??

  8. I suspect you’ll make it to see humans walk on Mars. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is doing pretty well so it is able to devote a lot of funding to its Mars efforts. It’s new Starship rocket is months away from its first orbital flight. It’s ability to cheaply put many tons into orbit should make a fast Mars trip feasible. Even if they miss their aggressive schedule by a few years, you should still be around. Me too, I hope.

    Ultimately the company is hoping to launch Starship to space for the first time in the coming year, with an uncrewed mission to Mars in 2022 followed by a first human launch to Mars in 2024.


    1. And I still consider Musk’s efforts as a vanity project. There really is no good reason humans need to walk on Mars other than “because it’s there and would be cool and history making”. Current and future robotic rovers are much better equipped to study a place like Mars. Maybe there is some kind of huge advantage humans have over robots in exploring Mars, but I can’t think of one.

      1. Well, Musk does have his reasons. He wants to colonize it so that humanity’s eggs aren’t all in one planetary basket. I don’t share his dream but I see no problem with it.

          1. If by “making Mars habitable by humans” you mean terraforming the entire planet, then I agree. At this point, I am only talking about human exploration of Mars. A decision can be made on colonization later, and on terraforming much later.

      2. One reason for wanting humans on Mars is targets of opportunity. If a rover discovers something interesting off the side of its track it’s a major operation to go and look. You have to plot the diversion carefully because by the time the rover sees an obstacle it may be too late to avoid it, the round trip signal time being anything from 6 minutes to 40 minutes. A human on the spot can react much more flexibly.

        1. Robots are being given more autonomy so I think such concerns are temporary. A good example of the way JPL is adapting to the delay in communication is the drone riding to Mars on our latest machine. It will provide the capability to scout out ahead of the rover and help blaze a trail through boulders or sand dunes. Also, keep in mind that quick action is not usually needed. The rover normally travels slowly. Humans would certainly provide some benefits, but would it be worth the cost of sending them?

          1. I would like to think that humans are going to become a regular space-faring species. Mars considered as a goal by itself may not appeal but it is a step toward exploration of the solar system and beyond. I think we have to do it if only for the inspiration and challenge.

            1. Sounds good Paul, but I have trouble imagining any planet beyond Mars that has any potential to be a fun destination. The rest of the solar system is outside the Goldilocks zone, and much of it so far away it would take decades for a round trip. What would you do with an astronaut on Saturn (can’t land, made of gas) or one of it’s icy moons. Probably they’d look around, take a few pictures and put some rocks in the trunk for the ride home. Something a robot will have already done at a tiny fraction of the cost. I think people are too much influenced by sci fi novels and movies.

              1. Frankly, anywhere more then 10km from Earth’s sea level is outside the “Goldilocks zone”. Humans couldn’t survive to a breeding age there without technology of at least late-20th century capability.
                Long before we have the capability to “colonize” any other planet, including Mars, we’ll have both the capability and experience at living for indefinite periods in habitats constructed in vacuum, from materials mined in vacuum, eating vegetation grown less than a kilometre from a vacuum (maybe as little as 10 metres from a vacuum), and with an Earth-like gravity (if not Earth-like Coriolis forces). In shore – in-space habitats. At that point, the “Goldilocks zone” becomes where we build it.
                A mere 450 generations ago, the concept of “Roof” meant a mammoth’s skin propped up on three sticks (or several mammoth rib bones – a couple of dozen come free with every mammoth pelt) A lot fewer than 450 generations from now, most of the diversity of human society will consider a “roof” to be the sheets of metal and plastic – with rock and ice for radiation shielding – on the other side of the spin axis (possibly other layers intervening). It’s just a different technology, and if there is a defining characteristic of humans, it is using technology to expand the range of environments we can live in. The technology of the mammoth-rib tent didn’t expand humans range as much as it’s predecessor, the needle and thread.

                I agree that PCC(E) is being pessimistic that he’ll never know if humans will ever make it there to Mars. The first human to walk on Mars is probably alive today – quite possibly in tertiary education, today.
                The first human to be born on Mars however … may never happen. Before we get to that stage, there are likely to be dozens of more attractive places to settle – or build.

              2. Why would colonizers do “round trips”? A comet will have all the resources you need to expand from here to the next solar system (comet cloud).

                The Milky Way is the next frontier, and there is only one way to get there (that seems to work resource wise).

              3. Certainly given enough time we could have the capability of colonizing some other parts of the Solar System. But, it will be a very long time, I think. Elon Musk will probably be long in his grave, as will we. Unless you can terrafom a planet, you’ll be stuck with a population locked in to some bubble with a recreated atmosphere. Not something to get too excited about right now. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible by the time we can colonize, humans will have lost interest in wasting resources on such adventures. I could be wrong.

      3. Different propositions. Humans exploring Mars will contaminate, but in general human exploration was 100 times cheaper in the 00’s against result/time.

        But SpaceX is about colonization, and with 1/10,000 willing to go the effort is economically feasible. Right now they need the system for Starlink (which seems set on a successful track and may increase SpaceX value with a factor 3) as well as early Moon customers. And don’t forget that a P2P intercontinental service would be much more environmental friendly (and faster) than current airplanes! (You can even go carbon neutral if you catch the propellants from air and water as they plan to do on Mars.)

    2. Is there still an unsolved problem of radiation for trips that long with astronauts? I’m sure there are plenty ready to face an early death, to be the first on Mars.

      Or is it just much further out which is the real problem in that respect?

      1. Yes, that’s still a problem but a lot depends on how fast they are able to make the trip. Perhaps Musk’s heavy-lift rockets can put enough fuel in orbit for the trip to be a lot faster. Same for water to be used as shielding during the trip.

  9. These images beguile us into thinking Mars is more hospitable than it really is. They look like some remote part of the Mojave desert. Perhaps there is a Chevron minimart with cold drinks and snacks beyond the rise. Of course the most inhospitable regions of the Earth, like the center of the Sahara desert or Antarctica, are in fact far more welcoming. Colonizing Mars will be an expensive challenge.

    1. Humans visiting won’t cost much compared to colonizing. I am not so sure the latter is really going to happen anytime soon. Us old guys may see a person on Mars but not colonization, or whatever they are forced to call it by then.

    2. “..minimart with cold drinks..”

      maybe hot drinks–the temperature is quite different from e.g. Nevada’s, to say the least. But no ice to ski on, the astronauts’ bodies and foreign imports to Mars being the only thing known to have water within some millions of kilometres.

      But under the surface,… ????

      The Gobi is slightly closer as an analogue, but (non-water) boiling still, in comparison.

      Actually the Antarctic is near desert IIRC, but again boiling hot most days/places for a visiting Martian.

      So we’re going to live there, are we?

  10. Why is Jerry Falwell Jr., a 58 year old man, doing pelvic thrusts exercises with teenage girls?

    He does dry runs. To be able to practice a good biblical motto again soon: Be fruitful and multiply.

Leave a Reply