In a decade or two people may set foot on Mars, though there are many technical obstacles to solve first. Actually the title is a trick question, because humans have already been to the Red Planet many times with the help of orbiters, landers, and robotic rovers. My husband Andrew Schuerger and I were inspired to create Messages From Mars by the many scientific discoveries and fantastic photographs taken in the past few years. We sent an international group of kids and a hoverbot on their way… to make their trip quicker and easier, the book is set a hundred years in the future.
There was so much great information we wanted to include that the book kept getting longer and more detailed. After a few debates with the publisher, we finally came to a compromise—instead of the usual 32 pages in most picture books, it has 40 pages.
The lucky students who have won a trip to Mars learn many amazing facts about the planet on the way. For example, it has the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons. They touch down to visit the historic sites of the Viking, Pathfinder, and the Spirit/Opportunity missions. Along the way they send emails home to share what they’re seeing. Readers who are familiar with my Postcards From Pluto: A Tour of the Solar System may recall its similar approach.
As you can see, the artwork consists of real photographs taken on the surface of Mars, with the characters drawn on top. Andy searched through many NASA, JPL, and ESA (European Space Agency) web sites to find great images to use as settings. There's a list of those web sites at the end of the book. One site that is not listed in the book gives updates about the still-working Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Another fun one is Rock Around the World, which invites kids to mail in rocks to be analyzed using a tool similar to one on the rovers. How cool is that?
By the way, the photographs we used have already been paid for by all of us (the tax-payers, that is) and are generally free for use with proper credit, as detailed in the NASA/JPL image use policy.
Not incidentally, Andy is a scientist who does quite a bit of Mars-related research in his Mars simulation chamber. The chamber is like having a little piece of the Red Planet right inside his lab, which is located at the Kennedy Space Center. In creating this book, it naturally helped tremendously that he is so familiar with the material and knows what he is looking at in the photographs. We ran across several mislabeled images in other books, such as a photograph of Venus mistakenly included in a book about Mars.
An obvious yet often overlooked point is that the facts in nonfiction books should be carefully checked and double-checked. Mistakes can happen in a number of ways… photographs can be difficult to interpret… it’s easy to assume too much… and writers often introduce subtle (or big) mistakes when rewording something. Beware of relying too heavily only on other published books or the Internet. Some sites are very reliable, of course, such as NASA’s. Unless one is very well-informed about a topic, it’s a good idea to enlist an expert to look the project over, if at all possible. Many specialists are happy to help because they want accurate info in circulation about their favorite subject. We showed Messages From Mars to two space scientists to ensure no glitches had crept in.
Speaking of the 4th rock from the sun, did you know another lander is on its way to Mars right now? The Phoenix is scheduled to land in about three months from now, on May 25, 2008. Its mission is to study the soil and ice near the north polar ice cap to find out if the area was ever hospitable to life. While not a rover, it has a built-in camera and weather station as well as microscopes, a gas analyzer and a digging arm to go down as far as one meter. For the latest news on its progress, check here.
Photo credit: Andrew Schuerger
Andy played a part in making the Phoenix photographs as accurate as possible. When it lands, Phoenix will take a picture of special colored “targets” that were photographed on Earth prior to launch. This will allow scientists to match the targets and thus get accurate colors in the Martian landscape images. But the targets need a special treatment to artificially age them before they go to Mars, because its harsh UV environment would change their color. So Andy placed the targets in his simulation chamber and zapped them to stabilize their color. Soon, the targets will be on the surface of Mars! If only we could go, too…