On Christmas morning, kids all around America will rush into their family rooms and rip open presents of Star Wars action figures, Lego spaceships, and Buzz Lightyear videos. If anybody turns on the TV during this ruckus, however, they’re likely to receive a genuine message from outer space.
That’s because the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft is scheduled to drop its Beagle-2 probe into the Martian atmosphere on December 25. If everything goes according to plan, it will be the first machine on Mars since NASA’s Mars Pathfinder touched down in 1997. (Things don’t always go according to plan, of course: Three years ago, the Mars Polar Lander crashed on the red planet.)
And that means kids will have lots of questions about the fourth rock from the sun. So you may want to tuck something else under the tree as well: Magnificent Mars by Ken Croswell, or Beyond by Michael Benson.
Magnificent Mars a splendid coffee-table book that combines more than 200 pages of gorgeous photos with up-to-the-minute science about the second-most intriguing object in our solar system. After nearly four decades of exploration, we’ve got some great pictures of the place, even if none of them contain little green men. Many of images in Coswell’s book are so good, in fact, that they look like something you’d see from the window of an airplane flying over Nevada or Utah–there are plenty of craters, but also canyons, riverbeds, and gullies. The landscape is at once alien and familiar.
The book includes lots of nifty visuals:
‐Side-by-side photos of Earth and Mars reveal that Earth is quite a bit bigger, with about twice the diameter. I sort of knew this, but seeing them displayed right next to each other in photos really drove the point home.
‐A picture of a blue Martian sky. Normally, it’s pink. When the sun sets, however, dust in the air scatters the light and creates an effect similar to the blue moon sometimes observed on our own planet (which is not to be confused with the more common definition of a “blue moon”–i.e., two full moons in one calendar month).
‐A cyclonic storm near the north pole that looks like a terrestrial hurricane–except that these wind storms on Mars don’t produce rain or snow.
‐We have earthquakes here. On the red planet, they’re called “marsquakes.” But they’re also rare. Writes Croswell: “Mars is probably the perfect planet for quakephobes.”
‐here for a sneak peek) and, in a welcome bit of humor on the next page, the happy-faced Galle Crater.
‐A picture of Phobos–the larger of the planet’s two moons–casting a shadow on the Martian landscape. (Bonus book idea: Two Moons, by occasional NR contributor Thomas Mallon, is an entertaining piece of historical fiction about the discovery of the Martian satellites–and much else besides.)
If you want more than Mars, there’s another brand-new coffee-table book for space buffs: Beyond, by Michael Benson. Coming from the distinguished publisher of art books Harry N. Abrams, Beyond is not just a collection of pretty pictures; it presents stunning images from our solar system as inspiring pieces of art themselves. As classic sci-fi Arthur C. Clarke writes in a foreword: “These images serve as a spectacular reaffirmation that we are privileged to live in the greatest age of exploration the world has ever known.” This is indeed a pleasing message in a year that has seen a second Space Shuttle disaster, followed by a predictable spat of “is-it-worth-it?” hand wringing.
Of course it’s worth it, as the dazzling pictures in Beyond make clear. The pictures of Mars nicely complement those found in Magnificent Mars (almost no duplication), the close-ups of Jupiter and its moon Europa look like they should be hanging in a museum of modern art, and even the ones of Earth offer a fresh perspective. There are also arresting black-and-white photos of the moon that make it seem the perfect setting for outer-space film noir. The shots of Saturn and its rings are equally arresting. The Sun, Mercury, Venus, Io, Ganymede, Uranus, Neptune, and various asteroids also receive attention. Only Pluto is missing–but then we’ve never sent a probe to Pluto, and the full title of the book is Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes.
So the ninth planet will have to wait for a later edition (and I hope not too much later: see this and this.) Maybe one day, however, there will be a book called Magnificent Pluto. When there is, we’ll probably be even more anxious to know what’s in a book called Beyond.