Mars 3-D – A Rover’s-Eye View of the Red Planet

Mars 3-D. By Jim Bell. Sterling Books. ISBN 978-1-4549-1178-4. £14.99

It’s nearly Christmas time – no, sorry it is, there’s no putting it off any longer – and that means many of you will be wondering what to ask Santa for, or what you can buy for someone else who is interested in space. An obvious gift is a book, but which one?

The Popular Science shelves in high street book shops are literally groaning under the weight of astronomy titles at the moment, and if you have a wander to the Reference section in any of the discount bookshops you’ll find some gorgeous-looking budget astronomy books, some so big they almost need a crane to lift them down and take to the till.

Click to buy Mars 3-D in the USA
Click to buy Mars 3-D in the UK

All of these books are packed so full of so many beautiful astronomy images – serene Hubble portraits of whirling galaxies and sparkling star clusters, orbital images of Earth taken by moustachioed, guitar-strumming astronauts – they almost leak out of their sides. But how about something a little… different

In 2004 a pair of unmanned US rovers landed on Mars and began one of the most successful missions of exploration in the history of space flight. Successful not only in terms of the science they have returned, but because their results, and images, have been shared with the public more openly and more generously that any previous mission. They have done everything the image-hording team in charge of the ROSETTA comet probe’s high resolution OSIRIS cameras has refused to do.

Since Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars their beautiful images have been featured in countless books, some of which I’m sure are already on your shelf. It’s hardly surprising that authors and publishers insist on using them; many of the photographs the rovers have beamed back to Earth are so dramatic, so artistic that they really should be framed and put on a wall.

I’ve thought for a long time that many of the sweeping martian panoramas taken by Spirit and Opportunity, showing cliffs, mountains and endless rippling plains of dust, are every bit as lovely and as significant culturally as the Yosemite and High Sierra photographs of Ansell Adams. Look at one of Spirit’s photographs taken from the wind-blown summit of Husband Hill, or one of Opportunity’s panoramic views of the crumbling cliffs and hissing screes of Victoria Crater and they bring Barsoom to life.

Because the Mars rovers are fitted with pairs of cameras itís not rocket science to combine two images of the same view to make a 3D image – an anaglyph. And ever since the rovers landed, Mars scientists and enthusiasts alike have been doing just that, creating spectacular and realistic 3D views of Mars. Seeing them requires a pair of 3D glasses (the good old fashioned red-and-blue kind favoured by David Tennant’s Doctor, not the plastic “sunglasses” you put on when you go and see a 3D film at your local multiplex), but it’s worth looking a bit daft to be able to GO to Mars by looking at 3D images of its landscapes through them.

There are now thousands of 3D Mars rover images online, free for all to drool over, but so far very few books have featured them. Possibly because they need the glasses to view them, and that means more complicated production and packaging, perhaps because even the slightest mistake in the printing process makes them about as useful as a harpoon on a comet lander.

Mars rover scientist Jim Bell’s Mars 3-D, features, as its name suggests, 3D images exclusively, specifically his selection of the best of these 3D images sent back from Mars. It’s a beautifully produced book, well bound, with very high quality paper and perfect printing, which is absolutely vital for a book of 3D images where the slightest error in the printing process renders the image migraine-inducing at best, and utterly useless at worst.

When published in 2008, the original title had a strange kind of card 3D viewer built into it, like one of those old fashioned viewers you see in antique shops. It must have seemed a good idea at the time, but it was not very practical, it got in the way more than it helped really, and made the book rather unwieldy to use, so much so in fact that I actually ended up using my old faithful battered and creased pair of 3D glasses I keep under my monitor instead.

But the anaglyphs are the stars of the book. The original edition’s photos, all taken by Spirit and Opportunity, were all chosen for their visual impact and to give the reader a good “beginners guide” to the geology and landscapes of Mars. The revised edition still features all those images, but also some of the early images sent back by the Curiosity rover, Spirit and Oppy’s nuclear-powered, laser-toting. Monster truck-wheeled descendant.

All do the same job: put on the glasses and open the book at any page and you will be magically transported to somewhere wonderful on Mars, looking at a rock-covered plain, a boulder-surrounded crater, a crumbling clifftop. With the glasses on you really feel like you can reach into the page and run your fingers over the sharp edges of ancient, wind-sculpted rocks, or trace out the shapes of meteorites which fell out of the pink martian sky before Man had invented fire.

When you look at the 3D images showing close-ups of the surfaces of rocks you can almost imagine you’re a geologist on a future manned mission to Mars, kneeling down in the cinnamon-hued dust, leaning forward and peering at a rock through your helmet faceplate.

But the most striking views, I think, are the wide-angle landscapes, the ones showing detail in the foreground, middle distance and far away. That’s when 3D works best, in books or in a cinema – when there’s a pronounced depth of field to fool the eye into believing it’s actually looking at a real scene. And in this book some of the images have a really, really impressive depth of field.

Each image is accompanied by informative but not too technical text, so the book is educational as well as fun. And as the pictures are shown in the order in which they were taken, Mars 3-D is an effective travelogue, too.You can trace the rovers’ paths across Mars, using the text, or the traverse maps at the front of each section.

Mars 3-D was first published four years after Spirit and Oppy bounced across Mars cocooned inside their protective airbags. As I said, the revised edition just out now includes a small section of Curiosity 3D images, but, sadly, only a couple of new Opportunity ones are included, which is a great shame. But my main criticism is that the book has not been revised as well as it could and should have been.

When it was first published, it stopped at the point where Opportunity was driving away from Victoria Crater, and that was probably a natural place to stop. But between then and now Oppy has reached another crater, the much larger crater Endeavour Crater and has seen some literally jaw-dropping sights there which would have looked wonderful in 3D images in this revision.

I opened the book fully expecting to see glorious 3D views of the rim of Endeavour opening up before me, and of the boulder-strewn slopes of Cape York, where the rover made “landfall” at Endeavour. I was sure it would contain eye-popping views looking across the crater, from Cape York, seeing the mountains on the far side, and I was absolutely sure it would feature at least a handful of images looking up at Solander Point and Cape Tribulation, the area of the crater’s rim chosen for Oppy’s ascent on the summit of its highest hills. I thought that some of the pictures from earlier in the mission would have been dumped in favour of later ones, but, alas, no, which is a huge shame and a wasted, um, Opportunity, in my opinion. The Curiosity images are beautiful, not saying they aren’t, but I would have been happy to see Oppy’s journey shown more completely.

But to be fair, that only takes away from the revised version of the book’s appeal for dyed-in-the-wool space geeks like me. For the man or woman in the street this book is a fantastic guide to both the missions of the various rovers and the geology of Mars. (And to be honest I made my own anaglyphs of those places when Oppy was exploring them anyway, so I haven’t missed out. I just think the book’s general readership would have benefitted from seeing more images from the later stages of Oppy’s epic trek across Mars. )

Mars 3-D is a lovely book. I can honestly say that if you buy it for a loved one with an interest in space exploration they’ll be thrilled.And if you buy it for yourself, you’ll treasure it even more.

Click here to buy Mars 3-D in the USA
Click to buy Mars 3-D in the UK

Stuart Atkinson is an enthusiastic populariser of astronomy and space whose blogs include Road To Endeavour, which follows the exploits of Opportunity.

★ Keep up with space news and observing tips. Click here to sign up for alerts to our latest reports. No spam ever - we promise!