A river runs (ran) through it!

The Curiosity Rover has rolled into an ancient riverbed on Mars. We’ve seen much bigger formations like this from orbit, but this is the first time it has been this “up close and personal”.

This should be the biggest news of the day. Maybe the month. But instead the news is reporting stuff no one will remember in another year, let alone 100 years.

Just to get some perspective, here’s the wide shot taken last week:

It’s nice to see NASA has finally gotten over its aversion to colorizing the Martian sky in a nice light blue, rather than the artificial pink we got fed during the Viking mission. A page entitled What Color is the Sky on Mars? ends ambiguously, but I think the answer is clear enough: mostly blue, with occasional times of tan, or maybe even pink when the dust kicks up (as it’s wont to do on Mars).

One of my long time peeves was the emotional relish with which early Mars explorers greeted the first images showing what looked like a crater filled Mars. It turned out that those early images, being taken along a very narrow band for a relatively short distance, were not exactly characteristic of the entire surface of the planet.

Never mind that though, the meme had been struck: “Mars is a dead planet! Not only that, but it probably always was.” Then came the pictures from 3 orbiters (Mariner 9 and the two Vikings) that, despite their display of great swaths of terrain covered with what looked live alluvial features rather than craters, didn’t seem to change the story much.

Given that experience, the skepticism over positive results from the Viking lander biological experiment wasn’t hard to predict. Curiosity’s much more capable and rigorous test apparatus may soon validate those 1976 results.

It helped a lot that most of those photos were in black and white, showing a surface of varying shades of grey, or when in color a uniformly salmon color (the USGS map of Mars made from Mariner 9 data avoided shading of any kind — the excuse was that the cartographers determined whatever shading existed was probably not long-lived enough to warrant being mapped, even though generations of Earth based observation proved that in many places they were at least older than the cartographers themselves).

A real breakthrough was made by the imaging team for the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter, who, not having been raised up (professionally speaking) with “Mars is dead” bias, chose to render a variety of surface colors that showed us what it was really like for the first time. The HRSC (High Resolution Stereo Camera) on board has given us some truly spectacular views. Even when the area is heavily cratered like the shot below of Promethei Planum, it’s clear we’re not looking at the sterile grey lunar surface but instead something very different (Promethei Planum is near the north pole of Mars, that white stuff is snow — there is no snow on the Moon).