Rebecca Boyle is one of my favorite science writers. In two recent pieces, she takes on our nearest, most Earth-like neighbor, Mars. The first is about a team of scientists doing research on extremophiles in South America.
The Atacama Desert stretches 600 miles south from the Peruvian border, nestled between the Pacific Cordillera and the Andes, “a cross extended over Chile,” in the words of the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita. Some parts of it are so devoid of life that their microbe-per-inch count can compete with near-sterile hospital surgical suites. Some areas of the Atacama, Earth’s driest nonpolar desert and the oldest desert anywhere, have been rainless for at least 23 million years, and maybe as long as 40 million years. Carbon cycling happens on timescales of thousands of years, comparable to Antarctic permafrost and places deep within Earth’s crust; the Atacama contains some of the most lifeless soils on the planet. The Atacama is one reason that Chile has become a haven for astrobiologists and astronomers: Its pristine dark skies offer an unparalleled view of the stars, and its depleted desert offers a peerless lab for studying the dry limits of life, including how life might survive among those stars. And honestly, it just looks a lot like Mars. It is the closest that these astrobiologists will ever get to the planet that occupies their grant proposals and their imaginations.
I’m neither an astrobiologist nor a professional astronomer, but I spend a lot of time thinking about Mars. I keep tabs on the robots spread across its surface and in its orbit, and sometimes I check their nightly photo downloads. The Atacama is not a giant leap from the Mars of my mind. As I drove up the coast, I found the view so much more like Mars than Earth. There are no palm trees or tourists or bleating gulls. There is nothing but brown, tumbling tanly down the hills, darkening to chocolate inside shadowy ravines and runnels, bleaching to an impoverished shade of cardboard, and crumbling into fine white beach before being swallowed by the cobalt hues of sea and sky. With no trees or succulents or even a blade of grass—not a smidge of green—the only disruption in the brown is a strip of asphalt, Ruta 1. With my cruise control set and David Bowie blaring, I pictured myself driving through Meridiani Planum, a vast equatorial Martian plain, en route to visit the Opportunity rover. The only reminders of other humans were the grim commemorations of car-wreck victims: Almost every mile of Ruta 1 is marked with roadside shrines to the dead…
Salar Grande was once a coastal inlet, much like today’s San Francisco Bay. It dried up between 1.8 and 5.3 million years ago, leaving behind a salt flat between 225 and 300 feet thick. The salar is therefore an analogue for the last time Mars was habitable, after Mars’ oceans, if there were any, dried up, when Martian ecosystems became concentrated in smaller places. And, like Mars itself, the Atacama is a glimpse into Earth’s own future. One day, billions of years from now, all of Earth may resemble this parched land of fissures and knobs, after our own oceans boil away, after the last trees fall, after the algae are all that is left of us.
“In the beginning,” Davila said, “there was bacteria. And at the end, there will be bacteria.”
The second piece is literally a letter, written to the Curiosity Rover that’s explored the red planet since 2012.
I think of you often. For much of this year, I saw Mars shining red in the window right above my computer. It was nice, like keeping an eye on you. And when I went to Mars earlier this year—actually the Atacama, a desert at the bottom of this world—the landscape made me think of you a lot. It made me grateful for the Mars you gave me, the Mars of my mind. Even more than your forebears did, you helped me understand why Mars stands out among the planets.
Earth’s other neighbors are interesting, sure. Jupiter is a peach-and-tan inkwell stirred with gothic darkness. Saturn and its orrery of moons trace feverish circles, as if brushed onto the void by the painter Kandinsky. Uranus and Neptune are the plain Christmas ornaments I hang next to the ornate ones, just to make the tree seem less busy. Mercury is a purple version of the moon, and Venus is a blast-furnace hellscape.
But Mars, little red Mars—it’s just like home. When you gaze out on the Murray Buttes, I see my Rocky Mountains.
That Mars — so like our world, yet so unlike it. Like a lover who understands and compliments us through similarity amid difference. It may be in the distance, but it is next.
And its visitors, like Curiosity, are already our friends:
I admire Juno’s photos of Jupiter and Cassini’s photos of Saturn, sure, but I don’t see the spacecraft in those images. And that means I don’t see myself. My connection to Mars comes from seeing you there. Seeing the terrain as you see it, that’s wonderful—but seeing you seeing it, feeling the photographer’s undeniable presence, is transformative.
Update: Boyle wrote a coda to her two pieces on Mars today for Last Word on Nothing. It’s Earth-focused, but then again, Earth is a very strange planet too:
Tags: Mars Rebecca Boyle space
At one point, after a couple hours of driving south, I needed a break. I needed to smell the ocean, mere feet to my right. I pulled over to the shoulder, parked my silver SUV on the sand, and walked a few feet. I was completely on my own. I saw nothing alive—no gull, no driver, no seaweed, no plant. I stared at the Pacific and felt my chest tighten. I was thousands of miles from my family, and I have never felt more alone.
The ocean was loud, dashing against dark rocks, and within a minute I felt like its rhythm was a part of me. It was going to swallow me and the sun was going to drive me mad. I strained to see anything else alive, some sign that I was still on Earth, but I saw nothing but sand and blue.
I squinted for a minute. The entire planet looks like this, from a great distance. From the Moon, you can make out the continents, patches of brown and green beneath a light frosting of clouds. But the general impression of Earth is one of blue and white. Ocean and sky. Our blue marble.
I listened to the Pacific and took a step forward. I was on Earth. I was so lucky to be here. So goddamn lucky I suddenly wanted to scream. Do you know how rare it is to have a planet covered in water? How precious it is to get out of the car, walk a few feet, and touch the ocean? It was the deep blue of my daughter’s eyes. This water is flowing through me, through her, through all of us here, together. Is this enlightenment? I thought to myself. I don’t know enough about Buddhism.
It was hard to get back in the car after that. But I feared that if I didn’t, the Pacific would rise up and consume me, swallow me whole before I had a chance to tell anyone I saw it. I had to tell her what I saw.