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Spirit / Opportunity Rover

Is space exploration photography an art or a science?

Geologist Jim Bell, an associate professor of astronomy at Cornell University, lead scientist for the Panoramic Camera (Pancam) color imaging systems on the Mars Exploration Rover Mission (MERM), and creator of the book Postcards from Mars: The First Photographer on the Red Planet, would certainly say that the best space photos seamlessly combine compositional creativity with observational objectivity.

Bell’s Pancams are literally the eyes of the identical Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers. (In the artist’s illustration, above, you can see the device perched atop the rover’s high, white, T-shaped mast.)

For example, this composite, panoramic image, below, taken by Opportunity about two years ago over a period of three Martian weeks, is of the Victoria Crater, on Mars’ Meridiani Planum, or meridian plain, near its equator.

Victoria Crater from Cape Verde

It was shot, in pieces, bit by bit, from the Cape Verde promontory on the rim of the half-mile wide crater. (Click on it, or here, for a larger, more detailed view of this amazing planetary feature.) To accommodate these extremely wide shots, some of the gatefolds in Postcards from Mars are three feet wide.

Mars as seen from orbitTo create such images, the rovers have been operating continuously on the Red Planet’s surface since January 2004. Mars, right, is 150,000,000 miles from Earth—equal to the distance one would cover during a round-trip airplane flight 60 years long.

As such, the 150, literally otherworldy images in Postcards from Mars, fewer than 1/1,000th the total number taken by the crafts, are like vacation photos from a place no human has ever seen with her own eyes. That is, until NASA starts correcting decades of white-manned spaceflight by deeming the first humans to set foot on Mars will be Black females.

Jim Bell is the guest on this encore broadcast of my WBAI-NY / 99.5 FM radio show, NONFICTION, this afternoon, Friday, December 5, at 2 pm ET.

You can hear his lively and thoughtful ideas by tuning in at 2 pm. If you’re outside of the New York tri-state, check out our stream on the web. If you miss the live show, dig into our archives for up to 90 days after broadcast.



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