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Op-Ed: Explore Mars yourself — NASA Mars Trek delivers, but some issues

Mars Trek is an interactive map with a lot of extras. It’s a mosaic map, with some straight lines where you wouldn’t expect to see straight lines on a close zoom in. This is a result of the standard NASA photographic protocols. It’s not that much of an issue, but noticeable.
On the Mars Trek site, You can search specific sites, and there’s a lot to learn as your roam the map. A word of advice for users — check out the tutorial.
The basics:
1. Click and drag will get you around the map quite well.
2. Some browsers, including mine, don’t support 3D.
3. If you have a lethargic computer, you may take some time between moves around this site, because it contains a lot of data.
4. Clicking on place names gives you some basic information, but not a lot.
5. Use the Help option just to see what’s available.
6. Use the search feature to find specific places.
7. You can use the mouse wheel as suggested by the tutorial, but the Zoom is more efficient.
8. You can use features like My Data to create color altimeter maps, useful for a more thorough view of the very strange, sometimes deceptive Martian landscape.
9. If you go too far in any direction in 2D, you run out of map.
10. Be prepared to do some extra research on a spare tab. Obviously, this thing can’t run all the information you may want.
Understanding Mars? Er, yeah, kinda sorta… a bit…
OK, that’s my community service done. I’d now like to wax lyrical about something I’m not entirely sure I understand.
I spend a lot of time looking at Martian landscapes on Mars Daily, NASA, and elsewhere. As a writer, I spend a lot of time describing things. The first thing you notice is that you’re mentally trying to translate Earth descriptions to something which is fundamentally different. This isn’t Earth. What looks like mud isn’t mud. There are some weird features which don’t have terrestrial equivalents.
I found myself focusing on something called the Sharanov crater, which is a tangle of “hills” and dark materials. You can see why geologists are going nuts over the dynamics of the Martian surface right here. There are multiple types of landforms, and call it a few dozen theories for each. This landscape doesn’t make sense in terrestrial terms. The universal craters are a nuisance, visually, but they’re also a reminder that this planet has never been like Earth in many ways.
Near a place called Tractus Albus, you’ll see an odd branching structure to its right, looking like a bridge to somewhere you can’t see from somewhere else you can’t see. It looks like Dali’s version of the Florida Quay in a desert. Description? “Branching structure”. Pretty informative, eh?
You’ll also find that your supply of adjectives runs out pretty fast. There is quite probably some real beauty on Mars, and a lot of materials for future lyricists, but right now, I’m learning how to see this place. My vocabulary seems to be remaining carefully, not to say evasively, neutral. I’m not thinking “descriptions” or categorizing, I’m trying to understand what I’m looking at.
If my adjectives seem to have chickened out, the verbs are braver. If you see the different forms, you see movement. It may be in slow motion, but it’s movement. Things happen on Mars. Understanding what is half the fun.
This planet virtually yells, “Come and see for yourself, you dumb bastards!” That’s not such a bad idea. Mars could be the safest, least threatening place we’ll ever see in space, and it’s nice and handy next door. If we’re going to learn how to explore, this is where we’ll be doing it.

Written By

Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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