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Mapping Mars

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Gale Crater, Mars, photographed by Nasa’s Curiosity rover on 8 August 2012 © NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

From James Hamilton-Paterson’s review of Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination and the Birth of a World by Oliver Morton (LRB, 22 August 2002):

Morton’s account of the mapping of Mars and his history of the scientific imagination and effort that has been expended trying to understand Martian geology – crucial to assessing the likelihood of life there – would itself have been enough to carry this book. He finds something old-fashioned about the mapping, despite the dazzling technology that makes it possible, because it is politically disinterested in a way that has never been possible when mapping Earth. Yet we also know, without needing it to be spelled out, that in some sense Mars has already become an American planet. This is not simply because of the US’s near monopoly in the technology of space flight. Arizona… has long been the unofficial capital of Mars studies, thanks in large part to its landscape and geology, and the fact that many Martian features have come to be understood in terms of Meteor Crater and the Grand Canyon. Arizona’s own desert landscape also supports artists who paint scientifically accurate Martian scenes, sometimes depicting the planet as if it were already colonised. The book has well-chosen pictures illustrating the striking similarities between Hudson River School landscapes and some contemporary artists’ imagined versions of Mars. The planet shimmers in the night skies above the south-western deserts like something projected onto a black screen by a collective imagination. It is variously a fabulous technical challenge, an extension of the American frontier and the locus for sundry utopias. The planet’s entire surface, roughly equal to the area of all Earth’s land-masses, has been mapped, imaged and imagined: it has, we might say, been appropriated.

Read the whole piece here.

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