The planet Mars boasts the most dramatic landscapes in our solar system. In a programme first broadcast in March, 2013, Kevin Fong embarks on a grand tour around the planet with scientists, artists and writers who know its special places intimately - through their probes, roving robots and imaginations.
As we roam Mars' beauty spots, Kevin considers why the Red Planet grips so many. Beyond its alien topographic grandeur, Mars inspires the bigger questions: are we alone in the cosmos, and what is the longer term destiny of humanity? Was there more than one life genesis? Will humans ever live on more than one planet?
The itinerary includes the solar system's greatest volcano - Olympus Mons. It is an ancient pile of lavas more than twice the height of Everest, with a summit crater that could contain Luxembourg.
The weight of Mars' gargantuan volcanic outpourings helped to create the planet's extreme version of our Grand Canyon. Vallis Marineris is an almighty gash in the crust 4,000 kilometres long and seven kilometres deep. That is more than three times the depth of Earth's Grand Canyon. In some place the cliffs are sheer from top to bottom.
A little to the east lies an extraordinary region called Iani Chaos, a vast realm of closely spaced and towering rock stacks and mesas, hundreds to thousands of metres high. One researcher describes it as Tolkienesque. This unearthly shattered terrain was created billions of years ago when immense volumes of water burst out from beneath the surface and carved another giant canyon, known as Ares Valles, in a matter of months. Imagine a hundred Amazon rivers cutting loose at once, suggests Professor Steve Squyres.
The catastrophically sculpted landscapes are part of the plentiful evidence that in its early days, Mars was, at times, awash with water and, in theory, provided environments in which life could evolve and survive. That is what the latest robot rover on Mars - Curiosity - is exploring at the dramatic Gale Crater with its central peak, Mount Sharp.
Expert Mars guides in the programme include scientists on the current Curiosity mission, and on the preceding rover explorations by Spirit and Opportunity. Kevin talks to hard sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson whose rich invocations of Martian landscapes form the narrative bedrock of his Mars Trilogy.
He also meets Bill Hartmann, a planetary scientist since earliest generation of Mars probes in the 1960s and 1970s. Bill has a parallel career as an artist who paints landscapes of the Red Planet.
Planetary scientist Pascal Lee of the Mars Institute begins Kevin's tour with a painting he created - an imagined view of Mars from the surface of its tiny moon, Phobos.
Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker
United States


00:00:00this is the BBC this poll cost is supported by advertising outside the U. K. Mars season on BBC radio four moss is a planets with spectacular and strange scenery in this program for us said in March twenty thirteen Kevin Fong explored some of the red planet's most extraordinary
00:00:21landscapes and locations the accordion nominal altitude air five point nine meters we've got a nice bite place were coming and ready for a grant last summer NASA landed the rebel to explore in a fall straight to close to the equator of malls its first images with familia freeze
00:00:44dried brown rocky desert but two weeks ago that machine curiosity told us that eons ago life might have been possible that also the one scientist described as good enough to drink pulled will run across the landscape by studying the to range of miles and the rocks from which
00:01:07that builds we hope to solve the planet's greats biological question but this program is not about the search for life on Mars instead it's a guided tour of the myriad landscapes upon which it would depend terrains of alien beauty and endless fascination most of them untouched by robots
00:01:30and some like nothing on the one of the reasons to go to Mars would just to be in these stupendous landscapes but has modeled the chaos landscapes huge pointy mountains we have really at this scale knows who analog on there's something on Mars that RGS uniquely Martian in
00:01:53my studies this basements and of what it takes to keep astronauts alive and well I'd imagine people in months and I found it full of houses the planet surface the bitterest of Antarctic temperatures and it's there is a minute fraction of earth's atmosphere but I'd still love to
00:02:11visit and so it's been talking to scientists writers and even paints is about the places they've imagine I want to explore how they will treat those landscapes but let's start with the fly by I am the doctor Pascal Lee on a planetary scientist with the Mars institute and
00:02:34I'm based here at the NASA Ames research center tell me about this painting you have in the corner of your office to what we see well the painting shows you the planet Mars as seen from its inner moon Phobos you standing on a very primitive world is very
00:02:53small it doesn't have an atmosphere and Phobos is incredibly close to Mars it's it's just a little over five thousand kilometers off the surface of Mars and from it you would have this amazing grand view of marks Mars would be the size of a basketball held at arm's
00:03:15length to your naked eye from Phobos and so you would have this gigantic Christmas ornament hanging in the sky Phobos is traveling around Mars faster than Mars rotates on its own and so you are essentially taking over this landscape of Mars going from west to east you know
00:03:37here goes a giant volcano he goes a gigantic canyon system a huge crater field or a sea of sand and all of this repeats itself tirelessly in utter silence from folks in nineteen seventy one a space Croft gave us our first chance to get the proper close up
00:04:02picture of months mariner nine that was the first probe that I was involved with bill Homan most scientists the nearly half a century Mars has enormous dust storms and there are what are called the global dust storms on Mars well there it happened to be one all manner
00:04:22nine was coming in toward Mars and we get there and the whole planet is featureless for little black dots on the planet figures under three in a line and then went off to the side apparently sticking up out of these clouds of dust and I recall a day
00:04:41at the jet propulsion lab where they had taken a high resolution view of the dark spot as they came in closer spots all had craters in the center there was the tops of the big volcanic mountains and these were volcanic caldera craters so that was the first moment
00:05:00where we knew we were seeing these enormous volcanoes on Mars much bigger than any had did it ever been seen on earth one of the places I would absolutely love to go is Olympus Mons Margarita Marinova and NASA researcher drawn to the greatest volcano in the solar system
00:05:17Olympus Mons a pile of love is stretching high into the sky more than twice the height of our Mount Everest it's about six hundred kilometers across over twenty kilometer site it's really try and compare it to anything we have on earth I initiate the fascinating place it's this
00:05:35giant volcano sitting on another giant bulge that was active for most of Martian history and we think was even active just a few million years ago it's actually so wide that when you stand on it you wouldn't know we are on top of a mountain its slope is
00:05:49only about five degrees so wouldn't be very exciting for skiing unfortunately Olympus Mons got everybody's attention not just because it was a volcano the size of Colorado and some twenty kilometers tall Kim Stanley Robinson a science fiction novelist whose imagination has also scaled back great volcanoes is surrounded
00:06:09by a perfectly circular cliff and that's ten kilometers of cliff about the steepest spots on Mars in a perfect circle around Olympus Mons and in fact my first substantial Martian writing describe to a climbing expedition basically based on the climbing expeditions of the British climbers around Chris Bonington
00:06:28in the seventies it's the same era and they were climbing the cliffs on the sides of a live in small the writers fascination with Mars exploration and utopian societies culminated in a twenty two hundred page trilogy of novels red moss green moss and blew most together tell an
00:06:47epic story of colonists who geo engineered the planets and transform it into a habitable world it's a massive work in keeping with the planet's extraordinary relief I realized a lot of the geographical features on Mars they were always two magnitudes bigger than the corresponding feature on earth and
00:07:07it's partly because the Martian landscape of developed for a couple billion years and then just froze in place no plate tectonics no turning over the landscape so when things did develop that kind of got gigantic and then stayed there so that the Grand Canyon of Mars Marineris is
00:07:23about a hundred times bigger than the Grand Canyon so the gigantism was part of the interest Robinson wrote his miles from the maps and photographic surveys taken by the orbiter's of the nineteen seventies but before those crisp detailed images astronomers with earthbound telescope could do little more than
00:07:44squints at the planet's the school was blue patches with Douglas waves and apparently straight lines streaking across its face but this glimpse was enough to let their imaginations take flight Melissa rice a scientist on the current curiosity mission earlier in the last century people took it for granted
00:08:08that there was vegetation on the planets that there is intelligent life on Mars building canals that there were beings who might eventually have some direct interaction with us this was something that people accepted as plausibility but the space race and its robotic eyes reached Mars and ever since
00:08:30he's been a world in which hopes and dreams of sorts and fallen bill Hodgman and Chris McKay of NASA's Ames research center the first glimpses of Mars came from the mariner flybys nineteen sixty five mariner for which simply flew past the plan snap snap snap snap took a
00:08:49few pictures on the way past and by chance we flew past those regions of Mars that showed no evidence of water pretty much nothing but creators and scientists at that time were saying of Mars is just like the moon with just a little bit of air to blow
00:09:06the dust around but that's the end of the story marsh was dead then mariner nine one in orbit seventy one man and I am gets there the dust storm clears what do we see but evidence of volcanoes an ancient water channels dry river beds all over the place
00:09:22Mar suddenly became alive was called the new Mars than Viking landed on Mars searching for life and didn't find and we are back to a dead Mars we go through phases where we're all optimistic that Mars was wet and alive and we go through phases where was dry
00:09:38and dad and we don't have enough data to firm up our speculations and so every finding from a new mission causes opinion to swing one way or another punish we scientists now reckoned that three to four billion years ago malls was warm enough for liquid water to exist
00:09:56on its surface an amount sufficient for rivers or perhaps even lakes these ancient vistors come not just from the recently arrived curiosity Steve squires at Cornell University is in charge of curiosities pre assesses the Rovers spirit and opportunity their journeys across crisis June's and hills have also taken
00:10:20Steve back in time to much less arid Martian landscapes but they've also opened his eyes to be a static thrills of the present day planets we've been on Mars for nine years with the rover opportunity we were there for six years of spirit we've gotten to see Mars
00:10:38in all of its moods if you will in all but seasons you know the weird times the beautiful time here that's when the skies are clearer that's when this lease does the atmosphere there these beautiful wispy cirrus clouds that you can see drifting over head summertime it's dust
00:10:55year it's hazy but that's when you see the dust devils you know these little Martian mini tornadoes that you could see whirling across the scene it's a stark desolate kind of beauty but it's a beautiful place a BC but some have tried to capture on campus bill Homan
00:11:11is not only a planetary geologist he's also an artist a painter of Martian landscape bill led the way upstairs to his studio into some a city surrounded by the mountains deserts of Arizona this third picture longing of this landscape on June two because there are people in it
00:11:32tell tell me about this picture we were out camping in western Arizona so I roll over in my tent in the morning and looked out through the flap and there was this nice sunrise on this very craggy mountain range so I decided well that's the Mars painting I'm
00:11:48gonna make on this camping trip and it occurred to me that this might be a kind of scene that you would see at what's called the dichotomy boundary on Mars and that's where the uplands meet the northern lowlands I thought you know what would be the feeling if
00:12:05we had a human party every explores their wondering around and so I tried to ain't that scene remove the bushes throw in a few more rocks little sand dune but get the people in there and and you know this they're very small figures and I think I'm often
00:12:22feeling like the human element is such a small part of the big picture and that's that was I guess the thought of just putting those small figures so there's some interesting hidden landscape up there in the distance and these guys will be going up the valley looking for
00:12:36a who knows you know sources of water that might ever read it that valley ancient sentiments that might have fossils in them from the first million years of Mars I typically have my astronauts on Mars in blue suits I've often thought that blue suits might be something we
00:12:56would use on Mars to stand out because there's so much red and brown in the Martian landscape the colors of Mars are painted from a very narrow pallet all the shades are similar to one another because of all the dust there's just this reddish rust colored dust everywhere
00:13:13no the images when you look at on the color images they give you basically the same view you would have if you were looking through the visor of your space helmet standing there on the Martian surface but scrape off the dust and get through the bedrock red patina
00:13:26of online oxide and most palates expands dramatically his Melissa rise on the layers of stone that curiosity found to have been formed in Warsaw these rocks are fascinating to me because on the surface they look like any other dusty reddish brown Mars rock but when you scrape the
00:13:47surface of them the rock underneath is a grayish bluish color that color alone has opened up Mars as New World for me when you get down on the ground and you grind just a little bit into the rock Mars isn't necessarily the red planet anymore that said the
00:14:05rusty Dustin sense of most had the uses for the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson in red mosque a lavishly color and shape every aspect of his alien scenes about thirty percent of Mars here these polar planes in the north that are just as flat as can be and I
00:14:24began to look at him with the new information that was coming in which had to do with somewhat better %HESITATION photographs these were sand dunes hundred times bigger than the biggest sand dunes honor so they really were pattern to mountains made of sand and moving in creeping on
00:14:41the winds around the northern hemisphere and so they made these yard and patterns they call them they're basically like the Nike symbol that swoosh but scores of them and if you got to the top of one he'd look across a patterned landscape pattern in that beautiful way so
00:14:59one of the landscape scenes where I felt as writing it I felt like okay this is catching that Mars is like in a way that is authentic my characters are there the readers and we'll see this was somebody going out on to that sand dune plane at sunset
00:15:14the sky was a dark red Mackey and the clouds were bright yellow streaks very high in the sky something in the sand cool tonight in the dunes with distinct keep happening it all turns purple purple dark brown rusts black you would get some really I guess you'd say
00:15:37over the top sunsets the maroon sky shifted into a vivid dark violet an electric car that was picked up by the June crests so that it seemed presence of liquid twilight name across the black Nadia stood under told violet sky on the surface of a petrified black ocean
00:16:03old news Ole strange it was absolutely impossible to compare it to anything she had seen before but for a scientist paints a bill Hartman his martial landscapes are usually modeled on vistas he has seen before in the distance of his home state of Arizona on this begs the
00:16:25question not sure what it is that draws you to malls it is is it living in Arizona that makes you look but I reside in one miles would you look for miles an hour as I want to know it's the sensation I had when I was a kid
00:16:39it was being twelve and fourteen years old and wondering what those places were like you know what would it be like to be there and I often think that that idea that there were worlds up in the sky that had names with names of mountains and names of
00:16:56craters and names of planes ethos cast knocked a sliver in this mount sharp eye on the chaos today I mean kids get completely immersed in lord of the rings or Harry potter and so forth there's this whole alternate universe which stimulates imagination but it strikes me that you
00:17:15have for us it was it was real I mean that these were real world this wasn't an imaginary world Kantor Chasma at this while the credits at the palace Marineris canyon system bells Marineris is this very enormous fracture on Mars and it's about pretty much the length of
00:17:33the east or west of the United States to huge fracture that formed from basically tension in the crust of Mars it just opened up this seven calamity feature Nick Warner a planetary geologist at NASA's jet propulsion lab in California one of the main things that I do as
00:17:51a researcher's actually look at three D. terrain models of bells Marineris another feature so I can physically on my computer fly through this massive fracture and look at the walls look at the landscape and the different types of the land forms that you see it basically would look
00:18:09like the canyons of the of the southwest United States it would look like canyons we see on earth are very familiar with but at a scale that is several times larger than anything we're familiar it's very hard to get a sense you know you you look at that
00:18:24people describe you think always just a sort of slightly giant grand can yeah I've actually hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon before and you look up and you see two kilometers bedrock this is seven kilometers she'd look up at C. seven kilometers the slopes of the
00:18:39walls would be anywhere from almost a perfect ninety degree angle at spots too gentler slopes and it grows into one large main rift valley and the customers tens of kilometers wide up to about a hundred kilometers wide along with of the whole thing now with it where is
00:18:55the Grand Canyon is actually a feature carved by a river over a million your time scales this is something that form simply from tension in the crossed over billion year time scales so this is something that has started early on in the history of Mars and is continuing
00:19:14to stretch and crack open even today some people believe that UV invented I guess you would say about twenty five cities on Mars to the course of the Mars books Kim Stanley Robinson a lot of them are put in interesting places just as an aesthetic pleasing place to
00:19:29live so one of them as %HESITATION mesa in the middle of the Grand Canyon of Mars that sticks up about half way as high as the canyon walls so your town as you lived in it would be on a slight tilt so that should be looking down into
00:19:43the canyon something like ten thousand feet but then the canyon walls would be still above you off in the distance five or ten thousand feet higher than you are very sweet town I think it's a great place to live then as you proceed eastward the landscape completely changes
00:20:01because you start to get into features that suggest that there's actually water pouring out of the eastern part of Alice mariners so this isn't a channel called by water now button Wilson has appeared at some point in its history Mars likely had a ground water table at one
00:20:17point for there's evidence all over the planet of channels that's just emerge out of nowhere as if they came just out of the ground and the water is poured on the surface see imagine opening up a seven columnar deep crack in that groundwater table in the volume of
00:20:31water that most important of Alice mariners that all of the features in the Martian landscape which also speak of ancient watery cataclysm with three D. images from Europe's mas expressed pride Sanjiv Gupta of imperial college London took me by laptop to one of moss chaos terrains this is
00:20:52a place called eye on the chaos that sits closely quite from Mars and it's a deep deep Hassam about two kilometers deep and it covers about a hundred kilometers wide so think of it as about the size of southeast England but you shouldn't picture of you of a
00:21:07million hectares of patchwork feels and rolling hills imagine instead amongst the New York City called house of rock it's torturous wreck of a place we can see huge pointy mountains it's like a Tolkien esque landscape for most of that Mieses with giant spies we landed at the center
00:21:31of one of these things imagine being in New York City or around some of the new skyscrapers going up around London I'm looking up but several kilometers high we can see the spires towering high above us and was shaped this was only this is clearly like nothing on
00:21:47a day off mysterious we don't fully understand how they came to be formed but the idea here is that the top about two kilometers miles was frozen with Palmer fostered the rock the solid rock of moss was actually frozen up soaked with water looked was alright actually within
00:22:04the poll was and parts of this melted in areas with the might of been underground volcanoes and the release of that water actually Cole was the surface to collapse deep down and so we end up with these guys Malta with these former remnants of the surface still sitting
00:22:19back still preserved can see a huge river bed to the north of this feature and that suggests a loss of war so tell me about how about four when this water was released under huge pressure from deep underground they would have been I people imagine giant fountains of
00:22:36water coming out of these chaos regions of this would have released a huge floods the scale of which you cannot imagine magic you know a hundred Amazon rivers all cutting loose at once roaring across the surface I on the chaos leads into this canyon cold air is spotless
00:22:55this runs for something like fifteen hundred calamitous it's close to the source area it's about two kilometers deep coughed into bedrock tens of kilometers wide and these canyons showed a variety of features that suggests that these would have been called by huge scale floods lofting maybe months or
00:23:17several months sounds remarkably files to be going through you want to see him is solid rock beds here to produce features on earth you would expect to be formed over millennia yes so much as the boulders tumble through the water in the slots hundreds of meters of erosion
00:23:36carving these canyons in months there's plenty of evidence that vast volumes of water once ran on the surface of Mars early in its history but in the billions of years that have passed much of it has been lost to space along with the planet's atmosphere of the water
00:23:54that remains an unknown amount is locked in and under the ground in permafrost on ice and perhaps deep aquifers but with so much water in motion history the question remains could there has been oceans Steve squires I think oceans may be a stretch certainly oceans in the sense
00:24:17that we know with them and have them on earth now they're been giant floods on Mars and water flows downhill and it's going to pool and low lying spots that water had to have gone somewhere and sat there for awhile it was clearly a lot of water you
00:24:31want to call that an ocean fine go ahead but it was an ocean like the ones that we have a we don't know what the climate conditions were like when that happened how long did that water stand there before it soaked into the ground and evaporator way we
00:24:44don't know we have this tendency to try to find things on Mars there like things that we know on earth there's something on Mars that RGS uniquely Martian the lens of geology we used to look back into mosses history is powerful but in perfect and so visions of
00:25:04most past fairy from science to scientist his Pascali whose impression of ancient Martian climate is not quite so warm war so we went in the end what I think really happened on Mars is that the planet was cold climatically throughout its history but what might have been warm
00:25:23was the ground the ground on the young planet was warm it had volcanoes going off more actively than today the ground was warm climate was called no oceans and if there were lakes were frozen at the surface and if they were pawns they were all frozen to their
00:25:39bottoms and in spite of that because it had some warmth in the ground there was a cycle of water and this water is what we're seeing the scars of today in the landscape I think it would be wrong to think of Mars as being kind of earth that
00:25:56went astray in the distant past that may have had some characteristics that made it a little more similar to the earth of today but of course if you go back to that same point sources in history earth was different than it is today okay they're two separate worlds
00:26:12that if each gone through their own independent evolution what ever the truth masa must be the most imagined most described but never visited landscape in the universe it holds onto it secret stubbornly remaining almost within our grasp but tantalizingly out of reach and still it continues to draw
00:26:34our attention an object of lifelong fascination leading some on to explore more than that to hope and to dream for reasons that are as ancient as the landscapes themselves to me it's all about and even the pain in your bed is about you know our relation to the
00:26:54rest of the universe you know if we woke up and we were all living on a little island out in an ocean and all of us have grown up on this island and there were some little towns and so forth but we could climb up on the hill
00:27:08and could see these other islands out there on the horizon I mean you just would not be comfortable and tell you began to understand what those other islands were and this is exactly the situation that we're really end and we live on a little island and space and
00:27:23we can see some other islands out there that's really a lot of what Mars is for me anytime you have a little child what they love to do is explore I think it's really built into us to explore and try to find new things and push our limits
00:27:37me I really kept that kid like wonder to hang on to that feeling of let's go see what's behind that mountain or behind a creek or try to figure out this new thing that we don't know how often does lay farai one of the planes how does that
00:27:50happen does it take liquid water can happen in other circumstances so all of those questions I mean that's what it's really about what I want to back away and can look at the big picture and see how everything is related so that's my interest sold out the big
00:28:04campus near this is William Shatner unassisted using radio for the studies of the planet Mars when there's only thirty eight percent of earth's gravity can humans be born there the outer limits science fact and fiction forget everything else full of trees are dying don't be alarmed what are
00:28:29you going to do about the radiation staying strong and we can get through this together place the order Graham and invasion of programs across BBC radio four journey to the BBC radio four website for details

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