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The Mysterious “Trees” of the Red Planet

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“I’m now convinced that Mars is inhabited by a race of demented landscape gardeners.” Those were the words that the late sci-fi writer, Arthur C. Clarke, made in 2001. They were largely made in jest, but they served to make an important and astonishing point: Clarke came to believe that evidence had been found strongly suggesting that there was vegetation on the Red Planet. He even suggested – tentatively, admittedly – that Mars just might be teeming with trees, bushes and plants. And if there was vegetation, then there just might be other kinds of life on Mars, too. Possibly even intelligent life. And what was it that led Clarke to come to such a controversial conclusion? Nothing less than NASA’s very own priceless photos of Mars’ surface, that’s what. But, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. How did such a controversy begin?

For Arthur C. Clarke, matters began in his teenage years. That’s when he developed a fascination – which lasted throughout his life – for the mysteries of outer space. Such was the level of that fascination, Clarke became a member of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) before he was twenty. During the Second World War, Clarke worked in the field of radar in the British Royal Air Force, honing his interest in science and technology. With the war finally over in 1945, and as a result of his growing enthusiasm for worlds beyond ours, Clarke accepted the position of chairman of the BIS. He oversaw it for two years. Clarke then took a break, coming back to run the organization from 1951 to 1953.

Floating above the red planet.

Clarke became not only a well-respected figure as an inventor, a writer, and an explorer: he was also someone who had an overriding passion for science-fiction. It was in this field, particularly, that Clarke absolutely thrived. For example, there was his short story, “The Sentinel,” which was written in 1948 and published three years later. It served as the direct innovation for Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1968 movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 2015, the SyFy Channel broadcast a three-hours-long series based on Clarke’s 1953 novel, Childhood’s End. Clarke also turned his talents to television, presenting – in the 1980s – Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World; Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers; and Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious Universe. He died on March 19, 2008. All of which brings us back to that controversial statement of the “demented” kind. It would never have been uttered had it not been for certain, spectacular photos that came back from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor.

As NASA noted in 1997: “Launched November 7, 1996, Mars Global Surveyor became the first successful mission to the red planet in two decades. After a year and a half spent trimming its orbit from a looping ellipse to a circular track around the planet, the spacecraft began its prime mapping mission in March 1999. It has continued to observe the planet from a low-altitude, nearly polar orbit ever since.” Not only that, NASA added that Mars has “very repeatable weather patterns” and that a “panoply of high-resolution images from the Mars Global Surveyor has documented gullies and debris flows suggesting that occasional sources of liquid water, similar to an aquifer, were once present at or near the surface of the planet.”

That same panoply revealed something else; something amazing, if the data was not being misinterpreted. Tucked away among a wealth of less controversial images from the Mars Global Surveyor were a number of astounding images that appeared to show nothing less than vast areas of vegetation; trees, even. They looked eerily like what on Earth are termed Banyan Trees. They are, essentially, trees that grow and thrive by living on other trees. It wasn’t long before the media – and Arthur C. Clarke – caught wind of these extraordinary photographs and what they seemed to show. He wasted no time at all in giving his opinion on this new development on Mars. Clarke made no bones about it when he said that the collective images were “so striking that there is no need to say anything about it.” Clarke was also excited by the fact that Mars’ very own Banyan Trees appeared to alter in appearance, according to the seasons on Mars. On this particular point, Clarke could not forget NASA’s words that Mars had “very repeatable weather patterns” when he said, “Something is actually moving and changing with the seasons.”

Candy Hansen, a key figure on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter program, said, in forthright fashion: “To date, there is no firm evidence of any type of Martian biology, past or present, plant or otherwise. In the Martian spring, the sun warms the ice, causing it to sublimate directly into vapor, and the resulting gas dislodges surrounding dust and sand particles. What we think is happening is that the dark sand is sliding down the bright frosted portion of the dune.” 

The debate of the Mars’ “trees” still goes on.

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