Project: Worlds Apart

Producer-director and author Chris Riley has been comparing landing sites on Mars to Earth. Can you help?
26 October 2021

Interview with 

Chris Riley


Astronauts need faster spacecraft, better radiation protection and heat shields before they can enjoy the Martian landscape in person.


It’s been a year of successful missions to the red planet. UEA’s hope satellite went into orbit, China landed their first rover on the surface and perseverance has been hard at work scavenging for signs of martian life. So far without much luck, but maybe Chris can help us put this into perspective. Each landing site on our closest cosmic neighbour acts as a snapshot of what Mars looks like, but what if our places were reversed? What if we lived on Mars and tried digging up more information about Earth? What would those landing sites look like? Back in February, prior to the launch of perseverance, Chris set up a project on Medium called Worlds Apart. Transposing the landing sites on Mars to their respective locations here on Earth. Chris, how many landing sites are we looking at, and what made you come up with this idea?

Chris - When I did this exercise in February, there were eight Martian landing sites to play around with, they're all in fact NASA's projects, other space agencies have tried to go and not succeeded. But eight times NASA has succeeded in a soft landing. The reason I did this was that people kept looking at these brand new pictures of Mars that were coming back, friends of mine, and they'd say, oh, it just looks the same as the last one, and the sky's a bit red, the ground's a bit red, the rocks are rocky and sand is sandy. And what is the point in going again? And I wanted to kind of grab them and shake them and say, no - I'm a geomorphologist by background, my PhD is in geomorphology - each one of these sites is uniquely different. They just look the same color because there's not this kind of beautiful mantle of biodiversity on Mars that, that gives us such a range of kind of special landscapes. So, I thought I'd draw attention to this diversity of what Mars really does look like by comparing pictures to the same latitudes and longitudes on Earth. I didn't know what I'd find when I first started this and I've never looked into this before. And it turned out actually five of the eight Martian landing sites, corresponded to some of Earth's giant oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific. And what I found interesting about those was that, of course it was impossible to see any life. There was no evidence of life and there was the prospect of life because they were wet, unlike Mars it's very dry, but there was no actual life visible, it was just these big waterscapes. So two of the three locations then mapped onto our boreal forests - Bikin, a forest in Eastern Siberia and the Phoenix polar lander on Mars, touched down in the equivalent place of Tuktut Nogait National Park in Northern Canada. So these places give us a glimpse of life, relatively simple plant-like life, mostly trees and bushes. And then the Curiosity Rover landed in the only spot that was sort of equatorial, an equatorial rainforest in west Papua New Guinea, the equivalent of that on Earth. And this had a greater diversity of life in sight on just a random snapshot of it. But again, it was mostly plant life. I couldn't see any creatures in this sort of random shot I managed to pull out of there. So what was very remarkable was the Earth wasn't quite as varied as I thought it was going to be actually number one and number two, there wasn't any sign of human life, actually. So, I thought, how much actually of Earth have we kind of changed? So when I looked that up, it's 3% of Earth's planetary surfaces where we inhabit. Incredibly, 7-8 billion of us only take up our towns and cities, 3%. But our outreach beyond that to sustain our lives takes up 50 to 70% of it. And yet still these eight points on earth actually were so remote that they bear no marks of us at all. Even these days with Google Earth and Street View, it's very hard to get precise pictures of these exact locations. I had to be a bit more vague actually with where I was picking them. We talked about this back at the beginning of this year on his Digital Planet show on the World Service, BBC World Service. And I pointed out at that time that the Perseverance lander, which was just about to touch down, it's a big, amazing six-wheel rover, NASA's latest one, was going to land on a site that was actually a bit more inhabited relatively to the place on Earth, in a place called Telangana, about a hundred miles northeast of Hyderabad. So, I tracked down a school that was nearby in a place called Sawali, a little, tiny little school and a polytechnic in a town nearby called Loni. And I reached out to both of them and said, Hey, but I never heard back from them. They're such rural locations. They don't have real reliable internet connections. So, I tried Astronomers Without Borders next and that network, which goes around the globe, had loads of Indian contacts. That didn't work either. So I'm afraid to say, I still haven't managed to...

Harry - We're still one short?

Chris - We're still one short. It was easier to get a shot from Mars and from Earth unbelievably.

Harry - There's still a little bit of way to go, but maybe potentially in the future, if someone's listening now, where do they have to be near? Where do they have to be near to to help you out, Chris?

Chris - Yeah. Well, okay. So if anyone is listening and is interested in contacting me then, so about a hundred kilometers Northwest of the top of Hyderabad, that vicinity please get in touch. I'd love to know. Equally China, as you might know, touched down that Tianwen-1 lander for the first time on Mars, a few weeks later, and coincidentally, that spot maps onto an area in Southern China, extraordinarily, randomly, which is 40 kilometres Southwest of a place called Guilin. So anyone up for a bit of a treck into the forests outside Guilin, please get in touch too.




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