The Echus Chasma, one of the largest water source regions on Mars. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Laurie Penny on Mars: Modern life is science fiction – but would you dare go on a one-way mission to Mars?

Would you sign up for a perilous journey, knowing that you’ve got just one shot at making the human race a bit better, a bit braver?

If you were offered a one-way ticket to Mars, would you take it? It’s a serious question. The first manned Mars landing, organised by a Dutch company called Mars One, has put out a call for applicants. In 2018, the planets will literally align, making a journey to the Red Planet more than feasible. You don’t have to be a trained astronaut but you must be willing to spend 521 days in a very small space with three other people, with limited supplies and drinking water reclaimed from your own effluvia. You will also be under constant video surveillance, because this mission to Mars is relying on global TV networks to cover its considerable budget. It’s the ultimate Big Brother, with no way out: after a year and a half the colonists will either shag or kill each other, or both. The ratings will be fantastic.

Most of all, you must be willing to say goodbye for ever to your family, your friends, the barista at your favourite coffee shop. This is a one-way trip: even if they make it through the gruelling physical ordeal of the journey, it is possible none of the astronauts will ever come home. Sounds like a raw deal, right?

Yet in its first few days of operation, Mars One received more than 10,000 applications for four places. This was despite a considerable entry cost designed, ostensibly, to screen out spam applicants. The company has already made a small fortune in application fees, making me wonder if it’s a scam. If so, it’s an extremely elegant one, conning millions of desperate people to hope there might be a future for the human race outside this cramped and poisoned planet, and that we might get to be a part of that future. It’s not as if Earth has a great deal going for it right now. No wonder people are falling over themselves to sign up.

It's a little ironic that I'm writing this column on Earth Day, the international celebration of the natural wonders of the third planet on behalf of a population whose leaders are doing their best to burn those wonders for money and choke the rest of us in the process. In the forty years since the first Earth Day in April 1970, with successive world governments having failed almost entirely to tackle climate change, the event has taken on the sort of grim party atmosphere of a nonagenarian's birthday party. Give grandma some cake, everybody! She might not be around to enjoy it next year! I only found out that it was Earth Day on typing the word 'Mars Mission' into the Google Search bar. This further illuminates the logic of exploring other options if you can raise the cash, which most of us can't.

So, would you go? Since I heard about the Mars project, I’ve been putting that question to everyone I meet, because I think the answer says a lot about who you are and what you value. I still can’t decide. I’d have to balance the certainty of playing a heroic role in the early history of human space exploration against the possibility of being locked in a tin can for the rest of my life with a closet Tory, or someone who finds Al Murray amusing.

Furthermore, as one of two women aboard the Mars One, I would eventually be expected to reproduce with my shipmates. Doing the deed wouldn’t pose too many problems – after 521 days adrift in the unfathomable vastness of space, I’d probably find a cheese sandwich attractive if it looked at me in a saucy way. But if I’m going to represent humanity, I’d rather it be because of my natural talents or my winning personality – anything, quite frankly, other than my uterus. Seven generations of women’s liberation activists didn’t fight for education, health access and political representation only to see the first women on Mars reduced to spare wombs. Besides, although sex in zero gravity sounds fun, childbirth is probably less so, especially after more than a year of sitting around drinking your own urine and not washing. Hmm.

Like it or not, most of us are stuck on this planet. Earth, as the physicist Carl Sagan observed, is where we make our stand. The moment you comprehend this fully is the moment recreational drug use becomes either substantially more exciting or less so, depending on what sort of person you are.

When they’re selecting the pioneers to leave the smoking remains of the earth, I will probably lack the requisite skillset for a place on one of the colony ships, because most of what I’m good for is writing articles, drinking coffee and complaining when I have to climb a lot of stairs. The closest I’ll get to outer space is watching interstellar cruisers blow each other into glittering bits on Battlestar Galactica and feeling, as always, that painful longing that digs in right under the ribcage: the understanding that my distant descendants might be lucky enough to see such wonders in real life but I never will.

I imagine that’s how my great-greatgrandparents felt when they read about marvellous inventions such as the internet and the contraceptive pill, both of which were science fiction a scant century ago, and without both of which my life would be unimaginably less free. There is something in us that is hungry, even in the most desperate times, for a future we can only half-envision, and the reason the Mars mission has captured the public imagination is that it promises something that these days is rare and precious: a real journey into the unknown.

A handful of generations ago, it was common for men and women who set off on dangerous journeys to places off the edge of the map to have almost no hope of return. In Ireland, “American wakes” were held whenever a friend or family member sailed for the US. Even if they survived the journey, nobody was expected to come home and it could take months for letters to arrive.

Modern life is science fiction. Love letters cross continents at the speed of thought and dead men sing on the radio. Before the telegram and the steam engine and antibiotics and Google Maps, this planet was simply a lot bigger and scarier. And yet people have never been content to stay at home.

One of the things that distinguish Homo sapiens from many of our competitor species is our capacity to dream up and set about stupidly dangerous endeavours just to find out what might happen. I don’t believe in God but I do believe that humanity is one long, terrible adventure that most of us, if we’re lucky, will never get to see the end of.

So, what did you decide? Would you sign up for a perilous journey, knowing that you’ve got just one shot at making the human race a bit better, a bit braver?

The good news, or the bad news, depending on your viewpoint, is that you don’t have to. You were signed up when you were born. We’re all on a journey like that and it’s called living. That’s no reason not to go to space but it might be reason to get up in the morning.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

Anna Leszkiewicz
Show Hide image

Why doesn't falling snow show up on your phone camera?

And while we're at it, why can't you take a good picture of the moon?

If snow falls on the ground and no one sees it on Instagram, did it really happen?

The answer to that question is a firm “No”, much to the chagrin of social media users around the United Kingdom today. There will be no flurry of Likes to accompany today’s flurry of snow, as one by one we each realise it is damned impossible to take a good picture of falling snow on our phone cameras.

 

A photo posted by Mamá 2.0 (@mama2punto0) on

The question is, why?

“All photography is dependent on light irrespective of camera type,” says Matthew Hawkins, a senior lecturer in photography at The University of the Arts, London. “Snowflakes usually fall in times of low contrast and relatively low levels of light.

“This increases the duration of exposure which becomes too long to freeze the motion of an inherently translucent flake.”

So it seems that, provided you’re not trying to shoot on a Nokia 3310, it might not actually be your phone that is the problem. In recent years phone cameras have become incredibly advanced, and the World Photography Organisation even has awards for mobile phone photos.

That said, phone cameras are obviously less advanced than expensive, professional DSLRs, and a lot of digital cameras actually have a “snow mode”, designed to help with the lighting issues that occur when photographing bright, white snow. "Snow scenes generally tend to come out underexposed, so exposure compensation (adding more stops) is usually needed and the automatic settings within a phone camera don't compensate for this," says James Jones, a freelance photographer.

Lauren Winsor, a photography lecturer at Kingston University, adds: “The shutter simply isn’t quick enough to freeze the majority of falling snow. It’s therefore either lost to near invisible motion blur or rendered as inelegant white, out of focus blobs.”

Given that your iPhone is currently trying to catch up with a theatre mode, it’s no wonder that it’s not really designed for the complexities of snow.

But if – as Hawkins says – these problems occur with fancy cameras as well as your phone, then why are your snow photos so underwhelming?

The answer to the question might actually be the answer to life’s many questions: you’re just not very good.

 

A photo posted by kayleepaterson94 (@ironcreature94) on

When I ask Lewis Bush, a photography lecturer (who is currently working on a project that uses satellite imagery for another perspective on the refugee crisis), why it’s so hard to capture a good picture of falling snow, he says it’s isn’t “if you know how”.

Multiple online guides have sprung up to help you get this knowledge, and Paul Moore, of iphonephotographyschool.com offers eight tips for the perfect wintery photo. “Depending on the light and the weather, snow can take on different color hues or even end up a dull gray color,” he writes, advising that it can instead be fixed in editing. A simple black and white filter or a photo editing app can change everything.

And while you’re here, what about nature’s other trickiest photography subject, the humble moon? Bush has advice for any amateur phone photographers looking to capture the big cheese. “The moon is hard, so shoot with manual exposure controls if your phone has them, you could also try using telephoto adaptors that clip on to your phone camera or even borrowing a telescope and shooting through it,” he says.

But if the snow continues to fall and you can't afford a swanky camera, what on earth should you do next?

“Shoot towards something dark,” says Bush. “White snow isn’t like to appear very well on a white background, and use a flash if it’s dark.

“Also, maybe question whether the world really needs more photographs of snow?”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.