In its final few days at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, Mariner 9 is an installation by video artist Kelly Richardson that offers an eerie glimpse into the future of space exploration.
The installation consists of a panoramic video screen depicting the surface of Mars 200 years in the future, as viewed from the landing site of the hypothetical Mariner 9 mission to the Red Planet. The view is an unsettling one, the landscape littered with a myriad of crashed satellites, dead rovers and marooned landers, the detritus of over 2 centuries of space exploration of Mars.
Despite the sci-fi premise of scene presented, rendered using the same CGI software used by the film and game industries, it is largely devoid of action, with the odd blinking light, brief flickers of movement from a dying rover, and wisps of space dust floating across the Martian surface. Instead the piece becomes a contemplative mediation on the vicissitudes of space exploration, coupled with a sense of loss for past missions, with each new rover rendering its predecessor obsolete. There is also the powerful realisation that, although it is 140 million miles away, humans are already having an environmental impact on Mars
As with all great speculative fictions, it uses the future as a means of talking about the present. As a comment on the stalled space program, Mariner 9 could also be seen as a critique that, rather than manned missions and habitable bases, unmanned robotic landers may remain the limit of our exploration of Mars for centuries to come.