A Cameraman on Mars
If you really want to know the planet, flip through Mike Malin’s photo album.
- By Andrew Chaikin
- Air & Space magazine, January 2009
Malin Space Science Systems
(Page 2 of 4)
Coupled to a 14-inch-diameter telescope, the camera would snare targets about three meters (10 feet) across—sharp enough, Malin hoped, to show large boulders, or even the Viking landers on the surface. His team had come up with a camera powerful enough to see the hidden Mars, yet small enough and light enough to have only minimal impact on the Mars Observer mission.
But some scientists still resisted. NASA was well aware of the resistance; one high-ranking official told Malin his camera would go to Mars “over my dead body.” And that would have been the end of it, if not for a last-minute intervention by NASA’s associate administrator for space science, Burt Edelson. In early 1986, when Edelson sat down to review the final instrument selection for the new Mars orbiter, he was surprised to see no mention of a camera, and even more surprised to hear that the scientists didn’t want one. Edelson told his chief scientist, “I’m not going to approve of any mission to Mars, or any planet, that doesn’t have a camera onboard…. Go back and put a camera on it.” And so Malin’s team got their ticket to Mars. In September 1992, after six years of 70- to 80-hour weeks struggling to meet the launch window, the Mars Observer Camera—MOC for short—left Earth atop a Titan rocket.
By that time, Malin had left his faculty position at Arizona State University and, using money from a 1987 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, formed a company near San Diego called Malin Space Science Systems, where he would lead the operation of the camera and the analysis of its images. Visiting Malin in his office, I could hear the complex emotions of what had become a very personal effort. “I think of MOC as my eye,” he told me. “Nothing like this camera has ever flown. I hope it works.” Malin was experiencing the potent mix of apprehension and exhilaration that comes with building instruments for other worlds, and he loved it. “This is incredibly addictive,” he said, as his creation headed for a glowing orange dot in the San Diego evening sky. “I’m on my way to Mars!”
The journey turned out to be longer than anyone anticipated.
In August 1993, just before going into orbit around the planet, Mars Observer fell silent; a review board later concluded that the craft had likely been crippled by a fuel line rupture. After the loss of the $800 million probe, NASA administrator Dan Goldin adopted his “Faster, Better, Cheaper” approach to space missions, among them a new, less expensive Mars orbiter called Mars Global Surveyor. When it headed for Mars in November 1996, Global Surveyor carried the backup hardware for Malin’s lost camera. On September 11, 1997, more than a decade after Malin first proposed it, MOC arrived safely in Martian orbit.
A FEW WEEKS LATER, Malin got a visit from Bruce Murray, who wanted to see what his former student was up to. It had been more than 30 years since Murray and his teammates had endured an eight-hour wait for every one of Mariner 4’s low-resolution pictures, the first close-ups ever taken of the Red Planet. Now several MOC images, each offering a level of detail unimagined in 1965, were streaming from Mars to Malin’s offices every day. For Malin, Murray’s visit was more than just a social call; it was a passing of the torch. “It was incredibly rewarding,” Malin recalled years later. “Bruce was like Obi-Wan and I was Luke Skywalker, and now I was the master.” While Murray and Malin were talking, another image came in, and Malin brought it up on the computer monitor. The image covered part of Tithonium Chasma, a giant rift near the western end of the complex of canyons known as Valles Marineris. It was late afternoon on that part of Mars, and the floor of the canyon was in shadow, but the canyon walls were beautifully lit.
Together, Malin and his former mentor combed the sunlit slopes for detail, until they came to a triangular patch of exposed rock, more than 3,000 feet high, that stopped them in their tracks. Within that bright triangle they could see dozens of dark, closely spaced horizontal lines: layers, more numerous and on a finer scale than anyone had suspected exist. Speaking for both of them, Murray uttered an expletive of surprise. In this one image, MOC seemed to reveal that the upper crust of Mars was not what Mariner 9 and Viking had led everyone to expect: It wasn’t a rubble pile of impact debris, like the moon’s crust. In those layers were hints of an untold Martian history.
Some 17 months later, on March 21, 1999, two images came down—years later Malin could still recite the exact frame numbers—that changed his view of Mars forever. They showed part of the floor of Candor Chasma, one of the Valles Marineris canyons. When he saw them, Malin was speechless with amazement: The canyon floor was covered with eroded mesas of spectacularly layered sedimentary rock.