A Cameraman on Mars

If you really want to know the planet, flip through Mike Malin’s photo album.

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During ground tests in a clean room last July, Mike Malin holds a color chart used to calibrate one of his Mars-bound cameras. Malin Space Science Systems

Excerpted and abridged from Andrew Chaikin, published by Abrams, October 2008.

In 1958, when eight-year-old Michael Malin was taking trombone lessons, he was informed by his teacher that he would never amount to anything. The boy reacted by practicing three hours a day, seven days a week, until 10 years later, as a high school senior, he was accepted at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music. He turned down Juilliard to study physics at the University of California at Berkeley. “Music was never my career,” Malin explained many years later. “Science was my career.” Still, the obsessive persistence remained. “If you ever want Mike to do something,” fellow Mars scientist Phil Christensen once said, “tell him it can’t be done.”

The one thing Malin had known he wanted to do, since early in his southern California childhood, was space exploration. He’d gone to Berkeley thinking he would be an astrophysicist, but when he saw that some of his professors were studying the first lunar samples, he became captivated by planetary geology. Malin went on to grad school at the California Institute of Technology; his thesis advisor there, Bruce Murray, was a member of the imaging team for Mariner 9, the first spacecraft to orbit Mars. At Christmastime of 1971, when a planet-wide dust storm was clearing and Mariner’s cameras began to reveal a geologic wonderland, Malin was at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, seeing each new image as it came in.

I first met him several years later, during the Viking Mars missions, when he was fresh out of grad school and working at JPL. Compact and intense, his dark eyes framed by horn-rimmed glasses, Malin had a penetrating intelligence combined with a sort of arrogant exuberance. In some ways he was a collection of opposites. There was delight and disdain in him in equal measure. He could be prickly, but laughed easily and loved a good joke. He was both imperious and generous. His interests were those of a Renaissance man—he’d even minored in English at Berkeley—but he brought a laser-like concentration to whatever he was working on. (Years later, Malin would cite focus, rather than intellect, as his strength.) By his own admission he could be brusque and difficult to work for; he also had an elephant’s memory for the slights and injustices he’d sustained. Like many very smart people, he could be frustrated at others’ inability to see things that to him were clearly evident.

After Viking, with no NASA Mars missions under way, Malin increasingly found his attention drawn back to Earth. As a specialist in the geologic discipline called geomorphology, he was trained to deduce the history of a place by analyzing its landforms. So he journeyed to places that could help him understand Mars. He ventured to the slopes of lofty volcanoes, including Hawaii’s Mauna Loa and Washington State’s Mount St. Helens, which he visited less than a month after its 1980 catastrophic explosion. He went to Iceland, where volcanic heat has mingled with glacial ice. He studied the processes of erosion—by water, in the deserts of Utah and Arizona, and by wind, in the dry valleys of Antarctica. And the more he saw, the more he came to believe that the existing views of Mars, from Mariner 9, the Viking orbiters, and the Viking landers, would never tell the whole story.

So in 1984, with NASA planning its first Martian orbiter in years, Malin proposed a camera to capture the unseen Mars lurking in the resolution gap between previous pictures taken from orbit and those taken on the surface. His colleagues promptly rejected the idea, fearing that even a small camera would be too costly, not just in terms of money but in weight, power requirements, and data transmission needs. “They didn’t want a camera,” Malin said. “There was no need to fly a camera. Viking had already taken all the pictures we ever needed of Mars. I, of course, felt that was absurd.” Until geologists were working on Mars, he believed, pictures would remain the key to unraveling the planet’s mysteries. And the only way to get the pictures he wanted was to write the specs for the camera himself.

First, he sought out Ed Danielson of Caltech, who had been helping to design cameras for planetary exploration since Mariner 9. With Danielson’s help Malin put together a small and, in the words of one engineer, “wonderfully unruly” group of scientists, engineers, and even some Caltech undergrads. One member of the team was a young computer ace named Tom Soulanille, who had designed video games under contract to Mattel and, barefoot in cut-off jeans and thrift-shop T-shirts, looked the part of the hacker. With Danielson providing a softspoken voice of experience to keep the young and energetic wizards on track, Malin and his team came up with a groundbreaking design.

For reliability, the camera would have no moving parts, not even a shutter (Malin was mindful of Danielson’s stories of past mishaps, like the stuck filter wheel that robbed Mariner 9 of the ability to take color pictures for most of its mission). Among the leading-edge technologies chosen for the design was a type of electronic light sensor called a charge-coupled device, which had only recently become available for space missions. In particular, Malin’s team zeroed in on the idea of using a single line of CCD detectors—similar to that in a fax machine—to produce a single line of an image. To build up successive lines, they would use the motion of the orbiting spacecraft, rather than turn the array. In this so-called push-broom design, the camera could take pictures covering a swath of Martian ground about two miles wide and up to 10 miles long.

Coupled to a 14-inch-diameter telescope, the camera would snare targets about three meters (10 feet) across—sharp enough, Malin hoped, to show large boulders, or even the Viking landers on the surface. His team had come up with a camera powerful enough to see the hidden Mars, yet small enough and light enough to have only minimal impact on the Mars Observer mission.

But some scientists still resisted. NASA was well aware of the resistance; one high-ranking official told Malin his camera would go to Mars “over my dead body.” And that would have been the end of it, if not for a last-minute intervention by NASA’s associate administrator for space science, Burt Edelson. In early 1986, when Edelson sat down to review the final instrument selection for the new Mars orbiter, he was surprised to see no mention of a camera, and even more surprised to hear that the scientists didn’t want one. Edelson told his chief scientist, “I’m not going to approve of any mission to Mars, or any planet, that doesn’t have a camera onboard…. Go back and put a camera on it.” And so Malin’s team got their ticket to Mars. In September 1992, after six years of 70- to 80-hour weeks struggling to meet the launch window, the Mars Observer Camera—MOC for short—left Earth atop a Titan rocket.

By that time, Malin had left his faculty position at Arizona State University and, using money from a 1987 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, formed a company near San Diego called Malin Space Science Systems, where he would lead the operation of the camera and the an­alysis of its images. Visiting Malin in his office, I could hear the complex emotions of what had become a very personal effort. “I think of MOC as my eye,” he told me. “Nothing like this camera has ever flown. I hope it works.” Malin was experiencing the potent mix of apprehension and exhilaration that comes with building instruments for other worlds, and he loved it. “This is incredibly addictive,” he said, as his creation headed for a glowing orange dot in the San Diego evening sky. “I’m on my way to Mars!”

The journey turned out to be longer than anyone anticipated.

In August 1993, just before going into orbit around the planet, Mars Observer fell silent; a review board later concluded that the craft had likely been crippled by a fuel line rupture. After the loss of the $800 million probe, NASA administrator Dan Goldin adopted his “Faster, Better, Cheaper” approach to space missions, among them a new, less expensive Mars orbiter called Mars Global Surveyor. When it headed for Mars in November 1996, Global Surveyor carried the backup hardware for Malin’s lost camera. On September 11, 1997, more than a decade after Malin first proposed it, MOC arrived safely in Martian orbit.

A FEW WEEKS LATER, Malin got a visit from Bruce Murray, who wanted to see what his former student was up to. It had been more than 30 years since Murray and his teammates had endured an eight-hour wait for every one of Mariner 4’s low-resolution pictures, the first close-ups ever taken of the Red Planet. Now several MOC images, each offering a level of detail unimagined in 1965, were streaming from Mars to Malin’s offices every day. For Malin, Murray’s visit was more than just a social call; it was a passing of the torch. “It was incredibly rewarding,” Malin recalled years later. “Bruce was like Obi-Wan and I was Luke Skywalker, and now I was the master.” While Murray and Malin were talking, another image came in, and Malin brought it up on the computer monitor. The image covered part of Tithonium Chasma, a giant rift near the western end of the complex of canyons known as Valles Marineris. It was late afternoon on that part of Mars, and the floor of the canyon was in shadow, but the canyon walls were beautifully lit.

Together, Malin and his former mentor combed the sunlit slopes for detail, until they came to a triangular patch of exposed rock, more than 3,000 feet high, that stopped them in their tracks. Within that bright triangle they could see dozens of dark, closely spaced horizontal lines: layers, more numerous and on a finer scale than anyone had suspected exist. Speaking for both of them, Murray uttered an expletive of surprise. In this one image, MOC seemed to reveal that the upper crust of Mars was not what Mariner 9 and Viking had led everyone to expect: It wasn’t a rubble pile of impact debris, like the moon’s crust. In those layers were hints of an untold Martian history.

Some 17 months later, on March 21, 1999, two images came down—years later Malin could still recite the exact frame numbers—that changed his view of Mars forever. They showed part of the floor of Candor Chasma, one of the Valles Marineris canyons. When he saw them, Malin was speechless with amazement: The canyon floor was covered with eroded mesas of spectacularly layered sedimentary rock.

It was the uniform thickness of the layers, the repetitive sequences of rock types, that was so remarkable; on Earth, these were the kinds of layers produced in standing water. You couldn’t rule out some other process—perhaps the layers were made of dust laid down in an ancient, cyclically varying Martian atmosphere and later cemented into rock—but the more Malin looked at the new images of Candor Chasma, the more certain he felt he was seeing sediments that had been deposited in a lake or shallow sea. MOC was letting him look back on an ancient, watery Mars, and the view was spellbinding.

Nearly every place where MOC photographed Martian bedrock—on the walls of craters and channels, on the slopes of buttes and mesas—it revealed more layers. In the ancient cratered highlands, thought to be the oldest terrains on the planet, MOC showed him that the earliest chapters of Martian history were far more complex than anyone had thought. Throughout the ancient crust, interleaved with giant impact craters, were layers of sedimentary rock. They seemed to say that even as the young planet Mars was pummeled by asteroids and comets,

the battered landscape had been dotted by lakes, sand dunes, and drifts of windblown dust.

By this time, Malin had taken on a partner, a 33-year-old geologist named Ken Edgett, who had gone to grad school at Arizona State, where Malin was one of his professors. In temperament, at least, the two geologists were an unlikely pair; one ASU classmate called Edgett a “huggy bear.” But they shared a passion for Mars, and Malin recognized his younger colleague’s skills as a scientist. By the summer of 1998 Edgett was given the important role of choosing most of the camera’s targets. Each day he combed the planet-wide mosaics of old Viking images for the most important places on which to train MOC’s powerful eye. There was a long list of features, from valley networks to polar layers, that had been known since Mariner and Viking, all of which were ripe targets.

But there was so much that wasn’t in the Viking images, or any other previous views, like the strange, twisted rock layers on the floor of the giant Hellas basin, which resembled pulled taffy. And the bizarre texture of the south polar ice cap, which was riddled with circular pits that made it look like a slice of Swiss cheese. And the fact that places that looked smooth in the old Viking images were revealed as astonishingly rough by MOC, while rough terrain seen by Viking often looked smooth at higher resolution.

Mike Carr, who led the team that had acquired the Viking Orbiter images 20 years earlier, came to San Diego to spend a week targeting MOC with Edgett and Malin. Carr had spent as much time studying Mars as any human being, but the planet revealed by MOC was entirely puzzling to him. Sometimes, as he walked the halls of Malin Space Science Systems, his head buzzing with profound and unsettling questions, he could be heard muttering in his mild Yorkshire accent, “We just don’t understand this! It just isn’t the Mars we understood! I don’t get it!”

EVEN AFTER a couple of years in San Diego, Ken Edgett was still vague in finding his way around the neighborhood he lived and worked in. But when it came to navigating MOC’s Mars, he was absolutely masterful. “He knows Mars better than any other person on the planet,” says Malin. “Way better than me.” Edgett spent almost every waking hour in front of the computer screen in his office, stopping only for fast food from a nearby mall. It got to the point where he could glance at any one of the tens of thousands of images MOC had received and be able to say, aided only by the image ID number, where it had been taken. One of the scientists on Malin’s staff who had helped to develop MOC, a geologist named Mike Ravine, had warned Edgett to pace himself, saying that this mission would be a marathon, not a sprint. But Edgett couldn’t help himself. “It was too cool to peel yourself away,” he said.

And during 1999 the pace of work was absolutely relentless. Each day brought a flood of new images, sometimes as many as 300, to look at. Sometimes he was so busy preparing for the next batch of pictures to be taken that he barely had time to study the ones that had just come in. Every new image had to be submitted to NASA’s archive of planetary data and posted on the Internet within six months after it was received. And on top of everything else, he and Malin were given the added task of photographing landing sites for the upcoming Mars Polar Lander mission; after it crashed in December 1999 they used MOC to search—in vain—for the wreckage.

No wonder, then, that they’d had no time to publish their discoveries in scientific journals. But by the spring of 2000, things had slowed a bit, giving the pair time to write a paper for Science magazine on a discovery that, to Edgett, was the most surprising so far: thousands of features that looked like drainage gullies on the walls of craters, cliffs, and valleys. Each gully had a narrow channel running down the center, and that meant the gullies had to have been carved by a fluid. The only fluid that made any sense was liquid water. The really troubling thing, though, was that these features weren’t relics from some ancient, wetter epoch; they were so fresh that they had to be geologically recent. In fact, Malin later said, “we cannot rule out that some of them are so recent as to have formed yesterday.” But, as everyone knew, Mars was now too cold, and its atmosphere too thin, to allow liquid water to exist. Or was it? Water was the one explanation Malin wanted to avoid, because it went against everything he thought he knew about present-day Mars. But Malin and Edgett ultimately concluded it was the only explanation that made sense. In June, at a packed press conference at NASA headquarters, they announced evidence that water had flowed on Mars in recent times.

That revelation, which stirred both excitement and controversy, was just the beginning. At the end of 2000 they published their discoveries of the complex, layered nature of the upper crust of Mars. Then there was the finding, made public in late 2001 and early 2002, that the mysterious pits in the south polar ice were actually getting bigger, evidence that this supposedly permanent mantle of frozen carbon dioxide was actually disappearing while we watched. “What this tells you,” Malin said in 2004, “is that Mars is experiencing today global warming.” MOC’s Mars is a world in transition, nothing like the changeless fossil it was once thought to be. For Bruce Murray, the planet revealed by his former student’s camera is so surprising that he now calls Mars “the land of broken paradigms.” And Mike Malin, who says Mars is “a puzzle with most of the pieces missing,” still feels humbled in the face of its mysteries.  

See a gallery of favorite images taken by the scientists at Malin Space Science Systems.

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