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 4 of 4)
No wonder, then, that they’d had no time to publish their discoveries in scientific journals. But by the spring of 2000, things had slowed a bit, giving the pair time to write a paper for Science magazine on a discovery that, to Edgett, was the most surprising so far: thousands of features that looked like drainage gullies on the walls of craters, cliffs, and valleys. Each gully had a narrow channel running down the center, and that meant the gullies had to have been carved by a fluid. The only fluid that made any sense was liquid water. The really troubling thing, though, was that these features weren’t relics from some ancient, wetter epoch; they were so fresh that they had to be geologically recent. In fact, Malin later said, “we cannot rule out that some of them are so recent as to have formed yesterday.” But, as everyone knew, Mars was now too cold, and its atmosphere too thin, to allow liquid water to exist. Or was it? Water was the one explanation Malin wanted to avoid, because it went against everything he thought he knew about present-day Mars. But Malin and Edgett ultimately concluded it was the only explanation that made sense. In June, at a packed press conference at NASA headquarters, they announced evidence that water had flowed on Mars in recent times.
That revelation, which stirred both excitement and controversy, was just the beginning. At the end of 2000 they published their discoveries of the complex, layered nature of the upper crust of Mars. Then there was the finding, made public in late 2001 and early 2002, that the mysterious pits in the south polar ice were actually getting bigger, evidence that this supposedly permanent mantle of frozen carbon dioxide was actually disappearing while we watched. “What this tells you,” Malin said in 2004, “is that Mars is experiencing today global warming.” MOC’s Mars is a world in transition, nothing like the changeless fossil it was once thought to be. For Bruce Murray, the planet revealed by his former student’s camera is so surprising that he now calls Mars “the land of broken paradigms.” And Mike Malin, who says Mars is “a puzzle with most of the pieces missing,” still feels humbled in the face of its mysteries.