Looking for Mars

Ever since Percival Lowell drew his fanciful diagrams of canals on the surface of Mars, the Red Planet has been the object of science fiction, paranoia, and fakery. And with numerous spacecraft now beaming back publicly-available images from our neighboring planet, Martian fantasy is a growth industry. Martian bigfoot, Martian buildings, Martian alien skull—Youtube is loaded with Martian hoax videos. The video above, uploaded several times under the title “Day and Night on Mars,” is one of the best—indeed it’s beautiful. Too bad it isn’t Mars; in fact it’s a time-lapse movie taken in Chile’s Atacama Desert. But how can you tell?

Three details tip us off. First, the shadow of the tripod, which isn’t quite like any apparatus we’ve landed on Mars. Second, the blue sky. The skies over Mars range from brownish-red to violet and even blue, depending on atmospheric conditions, but it’s unlikely that they’re ever the clear cerulean we see in this video (in fact they’re often scored with wispy clouds, unlike skies in Chile’s vast northern Desert). And finally—as a Youtube commenter points out—the night sky in the movie rotates around the southern celestial pole, as it does in Earth’s southern hemisphere. On Mars, due to the planet’s different axis of rotation, the sky turns on a still point in the constellation Vega, whose eponymous start will be our northern pole star, too—in eleven thousand years.

The film was made by the French photographer Serge Brunier, but he’s not responsible for the mistaken assertion that the video originated on Mars. Brunier is a prolific photographer of and writer on astronomical subjects (he even has an asteroid named after him); in one of his books, Solar System Voyage, he imagines how space would look to an interplanetary voyager. At his own web site, the video is presented as “24 Hours of Eternity in Atacama.” It’s a vision of space no less beautiful for the source of its true vantage point: our own, right here on Earth.

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