I heard Steve Squyres on the radio as I was walking through the park this morning, and he sounded just tongue-tied at the sight of Opportunity's landing site. Many people had predicted that Merdiani Planum (which I keep wanting to refer to by its old name of Terra Meridiani) would look strange compared to the martian landscapes we've seen before, and it certainly does. Most importantly, it seems to boast genuine outcrops - rocks sticking out of the surface, rather than rocks scattered over the surface. Most of the rocks we've seen on Mars up until now have been wandering rocks, rocks that ended up where they ended up because they'd been washed there by floods or they'd been thrown there by impacts. Here, in Meridiani Planum, there appears to be bedrock exposed at the surface. There's the chance to look not at the history of Mars in general, nor of unseen bits of Mars upstream - but of the bit of Mars we're actually experiencing. Time to get the hammers and eye lenses out.
While we wait to see what the rocks are made of, it's worth pausing to wonder whether landing sites will ever again be able to surprise the people whose craft end up there in the way that Meridiani Planum seems to have flabbergasted Steve. The next landing site, the one Phoenix will set down on in May 2008, will have been stereoscopically imaged from space by the Mars Express camera, giving a beautiful three dimensional context for it. It will also have been scoped out, I imagine, by HiRise, the super-camera being developed for NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (not least because Peter Smith at the University of Arizona is responsble for both projects). HiRise will send back images with a resolution of one metre or better that cover quite significant swathes of ground; its individual frames will be so data rich that they will quite literally be best seen on Imax screens. It will also be able to operate in a stereoscopic mode to produce three dimensional pictures.
With that much pre-landing imagery, I'd imagine that it will be fairly hard for a landscape to surprise us quite this way again. One more way in which our relationship with the planet next door is changing - the flipside, I suppose, of the ability to actually see ourselves in the sites once we're there (see previous post). Some thrilling surprises lost - an enriched sense of being-in-the-world gained.