Life On Mars… On Earth?



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A Traveler’s Guide to the Planets continues tonight at 9P et/pt.
View Mars in 3-D
with the interactive tour of the planets.

By Richard Smith
Death Valley, Nevada: July 14, 2009

You could tell the temperature was withering even before stepping out of the air-conditioned truck at Stovepipe Wells. The sun had dropped on the drive in but not so the temperature, still hovering around 115 degrees Fahrenheit at about 8pm. On the last stretch, we drove past the support car caravan for a team of ‘fun’ runners limping in to the overnight finishing post at the Village. How they could run in this heat escaped me. Why they wanted to defied me. With every runner we passed I was becoming more convinced that I was about to see Death Valley live up to its name.

It wasn’t an athletic death wish that had brought us to Nevada. It was Mars. More particularly, it was Steve Squyres, the PI behind NASA’s exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. The two rovers have been trundling around Mars since 2004 and Steve has been intimately connected to their trials and tribulations. We would have loved to film with Steve on Mars but seeing that is not possible we chose the next most similar place: Death Valley, Nevada.

Steve and his colleague Wes had flown in from Cornell the day before and when I caught up with them in the car park that night they were elated with the great day they had spent poking about in a clay pan between some dunes but looked quite ‘well done’ after the highs of 119 degrees Fahrenheit – a far cry from the seriously sub zero temperatures in the freezing deserts of Mars – described to me elsewhere as ‘like the Sahara rolled around to the North Pole’.

We had only a short few hours to film with Steve: from dawn until about 10am. After that we were going to need to escape the heat and head back to Las Vegas for a flight to our next location. It certainly focused our minds and our filming.

I had filmed with Steve several times before so I knew you couldn’t get a better person to be your tour guide to Mars. What I didn’t realize was just how he could bring the planet to life when he was standing in a place that looked outwardly so much like it. With Steve dressed in jeans and black cowboy hat instead of a space suit, we moved from Martian sand dune to clay pan, from dusty desert to rocky Mars Hill. Every step of the way, Steve sparkled with the energy of someone who’s mind was half with us here on Earth and half 40 million miles away with his rovers on the surface of Mars.

I had always wanted to go to Mars to experience it for myself. In four hours at Death Valley, Steve took us all there and we didn’t have to waste one red cent on a rocket.

Atacama Desert, Chile: August 6, 2009

Last port of call on the space odyssey of our whirlwind, round the world tour for Space Traveler and I found myself well and truly having the Martian experience. Both film crews were back in Australia by this stage and I was trying to tie up the loose ends before we hit the editing room hard and fast.

Right now I was hitting an unsealed road in the middle of Chile’s extraordinary Atacama desert in much the same way. Associate Producer Maria Ceballos and I were late for a rendezvous with a team from the University of Antafogasta who specialized in finding life on the driest corner of the driest desert on Earth. They had been sitting out in the middle of nowhere for a couple of hours waiting for us and there was no phone link for us to get the message of our late arrival through. We were navigating ourselves from the location the night before at the European Southern Observatory at Paranal. Things were not going as smoothly as I would have liked. I was exhausted from eight weeks on the road with little sleep and now my luggage and half my filming equipment had gone to the jungles of Peru instead of the deserts of Chile. I was getting sick of my one pair of clothes and the simple fleece I’d been fleeced for at the airport gift shop was not keeping out the desert cold.  We were bouncing along at breakneck speed hoping that we were finally on the right road for the rendezvous and that we wouldn’t end up with another flat tire or bogged again in the fine desert sand.

Filming schedules for this series were tight in the extreme. We had only about an hour here at most to shoot our sequence on a dried up salt lake before having to drive for another 6 hours to reach our overnight target of San Pedro de Atacama. Despite the rush, it was impossible not to be overawed by the landscape we were passing through. It looked exactly like al the pictures of Mars I’d seen. The hills were the same old, rounded shapes, the plains were covered in boulders that looked just like the Viking landing sites and the whole scene was colored a pale orange-red. The only thing that gave the game away that we were on Earth was the color if the sky which was a nice earthy blue. And the fact that it wasn’t minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Oh, and the fact that we weren’t having to wear Michelin-man spacesuit or fly in a spaceship.

As veteran planetary scientist Chris McKay describes it, the Atacama is 50 times drier – or ’50 times deader’ if you like – than Death Valley. That’s still not as dry or as dead as Mars but it’s about as close as you can get on Earth. The dry valleys in Antarctica might be a closer match, at least in terms of temperature, but nothing can beat the Atacama for shear verisimilitude to the look and feel of Mars. This corner of the Atacama can go fro decades without recording a drop of rain, yet you can clearly see the evidence for water erosion in the hillsides.

There were two truly remarkable things about this place. The first is that it s about the only place on earth that the Viking landers could have landed and not found evidence for life on Earth. The second is that within about 5 minutes of finally meeting up with Benito and Jorge, now reasonably well cooked on the side of the road, they were able to show us proof that even here life could cling on. Hidden inside the crystal structure of the rock salt on a long gone lake was the unmistakable green smudge of cyanobacteria. They were making do in the most tenuous of circumstances: by sucking in a trace of humidity from a fleeting early morning ground fog that may persist for no more than a few hours in any one year.

If you were going to come face to face with a Martian on the Red Planet, there’s a good chance that this is what it would be like. No antennae, no canals or death rays – just a secret smudge of green revealing the presence of the most important discovery we could ever hope to make. Life – but of what kind?

Sydney, Australia: September 23, 2009

When you start working on a television series like A Traveler’s Guide to the Planets you do expect a certain amount of disruption to your sleep patterns. For one thing, it involves lots of communication from one end of the world to another at any time of the day and night.

With the production offices based in Sydney, Australia, and most of the filming locations – and National geographic HQ – based in the western and northern hemispheres, you are certainly kept aware of some of the peculiarities of living on a large round sphere that rotates once every 24 hours and orbits the sun every 365 days.

Nearly everybody you need to phone or see is living in yesterday in the sunlight while you are calling from tomorrow in the middle of the night. And when you have a lot to film and edit in a short period of time, the planet seems to start spinning faster and faster. It would be quite handy to be able to jump planets to, say, Venus where a day can be eight Earth months long or pop out to Pluto where a year takes an eternity to pass – anything to help meet the deadlines!

The other way that the solar system pays with your sleep patterns is the way the planets have a way of invading your dreams. When you are doing a crash course on Planetology you can find yourself tossing and turning at four in the morning trying to escape an incoming solar storm or the sidestepping a puddle of molten goo, or even outrun a Martian dust storm.

Imagine my dismay and alarm then when in the middle of the editing for the Mars episode, my dreams turned real: when I could actually smell the approaching Martian dust storm bearing down on me and could feel the grit between my teeth. It was so intense a sensation that sat bolt upright. I could still smell the dust. I opened the curtains to see a sick red fog in the streetlights. This was very real. Sydney was being blanketed in a massive dust storm of Martian proportions. Wild wind had whipped red outback dust for over a thousand kilometers and it was now swirling through the city streets, over our houses and into every open window. A dense red carpet of precious outback soil weighing millions of tons of dust was leaving Australia and heading out into the Pacific towards New Zealand.

I headed down to the beach to watch. The dawning sky was blood red – not from the sunrise but from the eerie red glow in the sky. Visibility was about a hundred yards and it was getting hard to breathe. It was spectacular. It turned our familiar world completely alien. Completely Martian. The dust was very fine – just like on Mars – and a very similar color. As the sky lightened with the morning, it turned butterscotch – just as it is on Mars. And when the dust started to thin towards lunchtime – not like on Mars where it can hang around in the thin dry atmosphere for months – a feeble sun shone though, cold and blue and alien. Just like it does on Mars at the end of the day. Gazing out of the cutting room window that morning, the color of the Planet Earth, for a moment at least, was exactly the same as the scenes of Mars we were watching on the screens in front of us. 

Watch a preview of A Traveler’s Guide to the Planets: Mars. Premieres tonight at 9P et/pt.