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Book review: “Mars 3D” by Jim Bell

mars 3d peg

Regular readers of this blog will probably have an inkling that Mars is “my planet”, and suspect I have something of a soft spot for Opportunity, one of the two original Mars Exploration Rovers which landed on the Red Planet in 2004. Ok, guilty as charged. The MER mission has been an outstanding success, one of the most successful in the whole of the so-called “Space Age”, not just because of the incredible science which has come out of the mission, but because the rover team has, from the very start, shared their images with the public openly and generously – in contrast to some other teams I might mention, but won’t (cough… OSIRIS… cough)…

Since the MERs landed many books have been published featuring images taken by the rovers, and that’s no surprise, as many of the photographs Spirit and Opportunity have beamed back to Earth are so beautiful, so artistic that they look great on a computer monitor but scream out to be printed on the glossy pages of an outsize book which weighs the same as a small asteroid. The sweeping martian panoramas assembled from images taken by Spirit and Opportunity, showing cliffs, mountains and endless rippling plains of dust, are, I have thought for a long time, photographic works of art every bit as lovely and as important as the landscape photographs of Ansell Adams. They have brought Mars to life, made it a real place, for millions of people in a way which has never been done before.

A few years ago, Spirit and Oppy were joined on Mars by a bigger, badder rover – “Curiosity”, a nuclear powered, laser-toting minster truck of a rover, and like its smaller cousins Curiosity has sent back countless stunning images.

The landscape images taken by the rovers are spectacular. But because the Mars rovers are fitted with pairs of cameras it’s possible to combine two images of the same view to make a 3D image – an anaglyph – and for years now armchair explorers and professional scientists alike have sat at their computers, put on a pair of 3D glasses (the good old fashioned red-and-blue kind, not the fancy pants “sunglasses” you forget to give back when you go and see a 3D film at your local multiplex these days) and for a few moments GO to Mars by looking at 3D images of its landscape. There are thousands of such images online, free for all to drool over, but so far very few books have featured them.

Jim Bell’s “Mars 3D” is, as its name suggests, a book of the best of these 3D images sent back from Mars. It is a beautifully produced book. Unlike many “picture books” published today, which are so flimsy they feel like they were printed on tissue paper, It feels reassuringly hefty in your hand, there’s a weight to it. That’s because it’s a good, solid book, well bound, with very high quality paper and perfect printing, which is absolutely vital for a book of 3D images. It’s not a ridiculous size either – as you can see from the photo at the top it’s a book you can read on your lap, curled up in a corner, you don’t need an industrial crane to lift it off the ground.

The revised edition, I’m pleased to say, comes with a pair of 3D glasses to allow you to view the pictures. Didn’t the original? Well, no. That had a strange kind of “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’s not very practical.

3d viewers

I didn’t find it worked particularly well for me, and I actually ended up using the old faithful loose pair of 3D glasses I keep next to my PC for viewing anaglyphs online instead, and they worked much better. So, yes, very happy to see the glasses, they give the reader a lot more freedom.

But what about the most important thing – the 3D pictures??

Well, the original edition’s photos, all taken by Spirit and Opportunity, were all stunning, and they still are. Put on the glasses and open the book at any page and you will be magically transported to Mars, looking at a rock-strewn plain, a boulder-surrounded crater, a crumbling clifftop, and much more. 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 countless millennia ago. The 3D images showing close-ups of the surfaces of rocks are so crisp, so clear, looking at them you can almost imagine you’re the geologist on a future manned mission to Mars, kneeling down in the cinnamon-hued dust and peering at a rock through a magnifying glass.

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 – when there’s a dramatic “depth of field” to fool the eye into believing it’s actually looking at a real scene. And in this book you can enjoy truly startling views, and convince yourself you’re standing on Mars in your spacesuit, beneath that salmon-hued sky, looking out across the rolling martian plains and seeing rover tracks leading off to the horizon.


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 3D” is an effective travelogue, too.

First published in 2008, four years after Spirit and Oppy boing-boinged to their historic landings, it has now been reissued and revised to bring it up to date. It now includes pages of Curiosity 3D images, but, sadly, only a couple of new Opportunity ones, which is a great shame, seeing as the MER has arguably done its best science and enjoyed some of its most dramatic views ever since the original book was published. I was hoping to see gorgeous 3D panoramas of the rim of Endeavour Crater, taken as Oppy approached, and I was sure it would include beautiful 3D views of the the varied landforms on Cape York, and the ridges and craters Oppy encountered on her way up Cape Tribulation, but sadly not.

So, yes, all in all a lovely title and – as they say on every single advert on TV – the perfect gift for Christmas, at least for that space mad geeky relative or partner of yours. If I had one criticism it would be that the book has not been revised that well. When it was originally published, in 2008, 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” 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 bee 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. )

So, there you are. I can definitely recommend this book, and can honestly say that if you buy it for a loved one with an interest in space exploration they’ll be thrilled.


Jim Bell

Sterling Books

ISBN 978-1-4549-1178-4

The calm after the storm

Phew… Philae, eh? What a few days! And here in the UK many of us relived the whole edge-of-the-seat drama all over again by watching a “Sky At Night” special all about the landing and the ROSETTA mission. It was a really good programme, focussing as much on the people involved in the mission, and what was at stake for them, as the science. Chris Lintott and Maggie did a great job communicating the tension, excitement and elation which drenched ESOC last Wednesday and in the days after. If you’re in the UK and missed it, you can catch up with it on the BBC iPlayer. If you’re living outside the UK, well, you’ll have to hope that you can catch it on one of your country’s TV channels (many show BBC programmes) or find some… other… computer trickery downloady way… to watch iPlayer. Not that I’m advocating you do that, of course…


Right. Where are we? Well, 5 days after the landing, there’s no word from Philae, but that’s not surprising. If it is recharging it will be a while, I think, before it’s able to phone home; so little sunlight reaches where Philae fell that it’s a longshot anyway. But we live in hope.

Meanwhile, no doubt there are photographic searches being made for Philae, by both the ROSETTA navcam and the OSIRIS camera. Obviously there’s more chance of OSIRIS finding it, but they could find a herd of mammoth on the comet’s surface and not bother to tell us, so we’ll see how that goes. OSIRIS certainly has the resolution to see Philae on the surface, as long as it didn’t bounce into a crevasse or a hole, so fingers crossed.

And, of course, now the Philae scientists will be getting stuck into analysing all their precious, hard-won data, and doing science with it. Good luck to all of them!

Now Philae has been dropped off, ROSETTA will get on with its main mission, which is monitoring the comet as it approaches, rounds and recedes from the Sun. So we can look forward – I hope – to more glorious navcam images, showing more and more activity.

Finally, as our memories of Philae’s epic landing fade, I’ve penned a tribute to the lander to celebrate and commemorate what happened. You can find it on my astropoetry blog, here…

Philae Dreams

It’s probably not what you’re expecting. Have a hankie ready…

More soon.