An art exhibition on Mars

Posted by Matt Quandt
on Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Soviet Rover illustrationMichael Carroll, renowned illustrator and a frequent art contributor to Astronomy magazine, sent us his musings on the Phoenix Lander’s fate. Because his father worked at the Martin Marietta (now Lockheed/Martin) facility in Littleton, Colorado, Michael enjoyed unique access to the early stages of the Viking missions. His two latest books are Space Art: drawing and painting planets, moons and landscapes of alien worlds and Alien Volcanoes (Johns Hopkins University Press). Both are available through

We lost an old friend a few months ago. In November, the Phoenix Lander finally succumbed to the onslaught of martian winter. Before it gave up the ghost, the intrepid outpost sent us intriguing views of arctic Mars as it scraped, sniffed, and cooked martian dirt, unlocking the chemical mysteries of the world next door. Its little brain may be frozen solid, but that's okay with me: Perched upon its deck lies one of my paintings. That little piece of art had a long journey, beginning in my childhood.

When I was a kid, “thoats” lived on Mars. Those deadly six-legged, feline creatures coexisted with green martian warlords, golden-eyed benevolent aliens, and armies bent on Earth invasion. All these possible Marses arrived courtesy Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H. G. Wells, providing fodder for artistic minds. Soon, space-faring nations tried their best to see the mystifying webbed globe close-up. The Mariners and Soviet Mars craft revealed craters, volcanoes, and hints of floods, but no palaces.

The middle of 1975 was to be a summer of spaceships, a 3-month vacation seasoned by steel contraptions visiting the red-canalled world. July was coming. The Vikings were coming. Colorado temperatures warmed, and I headed home from college on spring break. As a respite from my studies, my father took me to see "something fun" at the Martin Marietta facility where he worked. After checking through security gates and circumnavigating desks manned by scowling guards, we ascended a metal stairway and stepped into a long room. Along the length of its wall, bay windows overlooked a bizarre, sterile amphitheater where engineers assembled some of history's greatest space probes. Perched on the vent-covered floor two stories below us, a pair of flattened cones endured the attention of technicians. In each cone, folded like an origami swan, sat a Viking lander. Here, cocooned in ablative heat shields, lay two promises of revelation, two chances to see Mars up close for the first time. Would either one work? Our Cold War Soviet counterparts were attempting the same thing. I was patriotic enough to hope these Vikings would be the first, and fascinated enough that I'd settle for either country's success. Everyone wanted to see as much martian real estate as we could get our eyelids around.

On July 20, 1976, Viking 1 touched down on Mars' plains of gold. It was the anniversary of the first Apollo Moon landing, and although Viking 1 had missed the United States’ bicentennial by 16 days, there was much celebration.

Through the ensuing years, I continued to paint Marsscapes. Astronomy magazine was my first steady client, and though my art would appear in magazines from National Geographic to Harper's, Astronomy will always hold a special place in my artist's heart. Thirteen years after Viking, I found myself at the Soviet Union's Institute for Space Research (IKI), headquarters for Russia's planetary program. Our delegation — hosted by the Soviet government and the Planetary Society — shuffled into a room, outfitted in plastic slippers and hats. Still in street clothes, we stood in the shadow of Phobos One, actual hardware that would soon be Mars-bound. As I thought back to the Viking clean room, I was amused at the difference in each country's approach to space exploration. Both suffered failures; both celebrated victories. We were all on a journey of exploration.

Even before the Phoenix mission, I had the chance to exhibit art on Mars. One of my paintings was selected to fly aboard the Russian Mars 96 mission, along with dozens of other paintings, novels, and songs. The interplanetary exposition was flattened into pixels on a tiny CD and placed aboard a vehicle intended to land on the sands of Isidis Planitia. Jon Lomberg designed the disk. Lomberg also designed the Pioneer 10 and 11 plaques and the Voyager records. But thanks to a malfunctioning fourth stage, my digital painting now rests on the ocean floor, somewhere off the coast of Chile.

A decade after the failed Soviet mission, our disk flew again, in updated form, on the aptly named Phoenix Lander. Who will find it? Will it end up in a museum, helping future Mars settlers to ponder our early days of Vikings and Phoenix Landers? Perhaps there are native martians up there, living in microbial, sub-surface colonies. Part of me hopes so. That same part of me wonders if some of them might even be art collectors. Art, like exploration, is good for the soul.

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.



Receive news, sky-event information, observing tips, and more from Astronomy's weekly email newsletter.

Find us on Facebook