The Scientific Exploration of Mars

By Fredric W Taylor. Hardback, 348pp. UK Price: £30.00. Publisher: Cambridge University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0521829564

There have been many books written about Mars, but rarely one written with the authority of someone so personally involved in its exploration.

Fred Taylor, Halley Professor of Physics at Oxford, has been closely involved with NASA and ESA in missions to the planets, lately in particular with Europe’s Express probes to Mars and Venus.

Scientific exploration of MarsTaylor begins with a look back at historical observations, from ancient man’s recognition that Mars was a neighbouring wandering world, through Kepler’s calculation of its orbit to the first telescopic observations that identified key landmarks and the polar caps. A surge of interest in Victorian times led us down something of a cul-de-sac with the spurious discovery of non-existent canals, and this helped feed the imaginations of science fiction writers long before any missions were sent to Mars.

From scifi to fact and Taylor take us on a timeline of missions to Mars including the successes and failures since NASA and the Soviet Union began targeting the red planet in the early 1960s. He tells us what we learned from each of these beginning with Mariner 4’s notable discovery that Mars was heavily cratered, and through to the more recent orbiters, landings and robotic rovers that have trundled across the surface. The detailed explanation of each mission’s aims and experiments makes this highly useful as a reference work.

Section two of the book looks at the science of Mars, including its interior, the nature of its rocky surface and the presence of water, and a detailed look at the make-up of its thin atmosphere and likely evolution of its climate. Ths leads directly to the big question of whether there has ever been life and Taylor describes what we should look for and the various ways we week to answer the riddle.

The third part of the book is a look to the future. Taylor describes the various plans, first to send robotic probes to bring samples of Mars rock back to Earth and culminating in missions that will send the first humans to explore the planet, with the challenges involved in protecting the astronauts in flight and establishing bases where they can live.

The detail with which Taylor reports on Mars and its study mean that this book is not a light read. But by avoiding academic jargon and equations, he has produced a scholarly book which is accessible by any intelligent layman with an interest in our solar system. The result is an information-packed reference work that is constantly fascinating. Readers will find themselves carried along by the excitement of discovery regarding the red planet and the quest to find out whether there is, or ever has been, life there.