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Book Review: Jim Bell's Postcards from Mars

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Mission beamed back images from the surface of Mars beginning in 2004. This book of the photographs retrieved from the twin rovers Spirit & Opportunity was compiled by an integral part of the team, Jim Bell.

Bell has been an photographer since he was a kid and this experience has surely engendered an appreciation of the artistic, aesthetic (alongside the technical) aspect of photography. This is apparent in his selection of images from the tens of thousands of shots taken.

Cover of the book: Postcards from Mars The fold out panoramas provide the reader with a truly amazing level of detail. To the cynical Mars' landscape may look just like Utah's but when you take a deep breath and it sinks in that you're gazing at another world your sense of wonder builds. Unlike the deep space images from the Hubble Space Telescope (spectacular in their own unique way) these pictures of Mars have a certain tangibility about them: man-made rovers took these photos from close range, not a telescope from millions of light years away.

The enthusiasm of science television program host Bill Nye's forward sets the scene for a book which brings the adventure of "safe journeys and joyous discoveries" into our homes. Despite the internet being awash with astrophotography and an invaluable resource in that regard, there is still something to be said for sitting down in a comfortable armchair free from the distractions of this world in quiet contemplation of the wonders of another. This book facilitates such Sunday afternoon pleasures.

It would be remiss to focus solely on the imagery in the book. The accompanying narrative provides a glimpse of the massive effort that went into this mission to Mars.

Bell begins by documenting how the teams behind the Spirit & Opportunity rovers overcame many hurdles in bringing the project to fruition after numerous false dawns. (He himself was involved in the labourious testing of the cameras and advised on the choosing of the landing locations.) Throughout hee manages to effectively capture the drama of the mission: from Spirit's near fatal computer error (involving "pointers" - the bane of every freshman computer scientist's life) to the anxiety of Opportunity's entrapment in fine sand.

I'm wary of using the old cliché that a picture paints a thousand words but it's quite apt here. If you're looking for a book to inspire and enthrall you need look no further.

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Reviewer: Marc Delehanty

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