The surface of Mars has the biggest volcanic mountains and deepest canyons in the solar system. There are the remains of water features everywhere, both tiny and vast, yet water hasn’t flowed on the surface for over three billion years. The whole planet is red because it’s rusty. Actually, it’s not really red—more of a brownish orange with blacks and greys and whites mixed in. But someone long ago called it “the red planet”, and the name stuck. A day on Mars is about 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth and is called a sol. The sunsets are upside down from those of Earth: shades of blue layering out from the Sun, diffusing into yellows and pinks and oranges above. Mars has two moons that move in opposite directions across the sky. There is very little atmosphere, and what there is consists mostly of carbon dioxide, the same gas that we exhale here on Earth. The wind blows hard at times, yet the atmosphere is so thin that you might barely notice it. Such winds can lift dust from the surface though, sometimes creating massive dust storms that blow for days. Occasionally, one of these storms will grow to cover the entire planet.
The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla publishes an annual list of recommended children’s books about space. Scratching the Surface made it onto this year’s list!
I’m honored to be included with all these other great titles.
Emily Lakdawalla’s Recommended Space Books for Kids, 2019
Welcome to my 11th annual list of recommended space books for kids! This year I had more than 80 books to read, and I’ve winnowed the list to recommend 29. There are books for all ages from 0 to 18 and beyond.
Stop a moment and look at this image. The human eye loves a vanishing point image and this is a good one. Look at the way the tracks interact with features of the surface. Look at the other set of tracks to the right. Perseverance has been busy looking for just the right spot. Finally, look at Ingenuity, newly set on the surface of its new home, waiting for its chance to rise up and explore on its own.
If you haven’t watched the Starship hop from yesterday, take a look at the official SpaceX feed. It doesn’t show the later explosion (yes, it blew up about ten minutes after landing), but there is some really great footage here. The transition to glide at 10:04 and the relighting of the Raptors at 11:41 stand out, but the whole thing is worth a watch.
image: screen grab from SpaceX video
Yes, the landing legs failed. Yes, it stands at an angle after landing. Yes, it blew up ten minutes later. That stuff doesn’t matter yet. The legs were a temporary solution, not the final design. The goal of this mission was to improve the glide and the flip-and-burn maneuver for landing. By those measures, this flight was a success.
I took a few minutes last night to stand out in the cold and look up at Mars. That bright orange dot, right there next to the Moon: we built a robot, and we threw it at that dot, and that robot used its own wits to find the perfect landing spot, and now it sits there, ready to look for past life. On that bright orange dot, right there next to the Moon.
I’ve been working on the next book, and so haven’t mentioned all the cool stuff going on with Mars this month. Over the past week, two spacecraft successfully inserted themselves into orbit around the planet.
The Hope orbiter, from the United Arab Emirates, will be studying weather patterns.
The Tianwen-1 mission, from China, is composed of an orbiter, deployable camera, lander, and rover. The overall mission objective is to search for evidence of life and to assess the environment. The lander and its rover will attempt to land in May of this year.
And next week, on the afternoon of February 18, Perseverance will land in Jezero Crater. Perseverance will be looking for evidence of past and present life, testing oxygen production technology for future human missions, collecting rock and regolith samples for eventual return to Earth, and flying the first helicopter on Mars.
For more information on Perseverance, check out this in-depth article from The Smithsonian.