With every new view from the surface of Mars comes a reminder of just how fortunate we are to live on Earth. They should serve as one more wake up call to the fragility of what we have, and what we could lose.
On the 18th February 2021, a brand-new Martian vista will burst from obscurity into the consciousness of a new audience on Earth. The revelation will be beamed to us from the cameras of NASA’s latest miraculous Mars rover: Perseverance.
The name is apt. In our search for life on the red planet, we have attempted to land there 19 times in the past 50 years, succeeding on just eight occasions. Those eight successful landing sites span the planet, from its northern polar region to its equatorial belt. Yet, to the untrained eye, each Martian landscape can look like the last; a barren empty wasteland, red rocks stretching out beneath a smog-brown sky. This once wet planet is today a global desert world, devoid of any complex life.
In comparison, the wealth of life on Earth wraps our planetary surface in far more spectacle. Earth’s rich biosphere and our own array of architectural structures surely stand our home planet apart from Mars.
But flip these two planets for a moment and imagine a series of fictional Martian probes touching down at the eight equivalent latitudes and longitudes on Earth. What would their cameras capture?
Five of our eight Martian landing sites correspond to locations on Earth’s giant oceans — the Atlantic and the Pacific, where life is hard to see in a single snapshot. Although wet, (and liquid water offers the promise of life) these five Earth seascapes appear no more physically varied than their dried-up Martian equivalents.
Two of the three locations map onto our boreal forests; NASA’s Viking 2 site corresponding to the edge of the Bikin National Park in Eastern Siberia, and the Phoenix polar lander mapping onto the Tuktut Nogait National Park, in Northern Canada. These places give us a glimpse of life, mostly trees and bushes.
Three years after Phoenix touched down, NASA’s giant Curiosity rover survived its “seven minutes of terror” to land at a location equivalent to the latitude and longitude of a tropical rainforest in West Papua, with a greater diversity of life in sight.
But, perhaps more remarkably, in this age of the Anthropocene, none of these eight Earth locations capture a single sign of human life.
Although we inhabit just 3% per cent of the planet’s land surface, through the combined footprints of all our cities, our profligate consumption of natural resources has visibly impacted 50–70% of the Earth’s land. Yet these eight points on Earth are still so remote that they bear no marks of us. Indeed even in this age of Google Earth and Street View, no images taken at their precise coordinates, can easily be found online.
Only if NASA’s Perseverance lander executes a successful soft landing in Jezero Crater, this month, will a Martian landing site correlate to a more visibly populated region of Earth, in the Indian state of Telangana, about 100 miles NE of Hyderabad.
Locked up at home, as many of us currently are, with human landscapes as far as the eye can see, it’s easy to feel detached from nature and set apart from the planet. But the truth is that Earth has always been set apart from us. It is vast and indifferent to our existence, as these eight random views remind us.
Hard as our lives might feel right now, it’s extraordinary that creatures as complex as humans exist here at all, given how precarious a planetary surface can be. Our civilizations have only blossomed thanks to a series of random and fortunate natural events which forged the favourable life support systems that threw us a chance to thrive.
Such natural systems are temporary and fragile. They come and they go, suddenly taking life with them. We should never take Earth’s habitability for granted. Each new Martian vista is a reminder of that.
Christopher Riley is a science writer and filmmaker. He has a PhD in planetary science and is the author of ‘Where once we Stood’. www.chris-riley.net