by Jon Lomberg

On Aug.5, 2012 NASA landed the Curiosity rover on Mars to begin a two-year science on Mars at Gale Crater, near the Martian equator. There are features there that were formed by water long ago, so it is a good place to explore for ancient signs of life. Curiosity is filled with complex instruments to study Mars’ surface and atmosphere. But Curiosity also carries a simple experiment for schoolkids on Earth: a sundial to watch. In the same way a sundial is used on Earth, this martian shadow can reveal the season, latitude, and time of day on Mars.

The NASA team that designed this sundial invited me to do some of the actual artwork, with fellow artist Tyler Nordgren, on this artifact. Around the edges there is a message intended for the future human inhabitants of Mars who find it someday.

This is the fourth artwork of mine on Mars. My first attempt to reach the Red Planet started with a death and ended in failure. In 1993, the famous science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, was dying of cancer. Carl Sagan’s space-advocacy group the Planetary Society (TPS) proposed to honor Asimov by sending his stories to Mars on a CD design to survive there. Sagan and the TPS Director Louis Friedman valued the important role that science fiction stories had played in inspiring the real exploration of space. The CD would be a gift for any human of the future who found the old spacecraft containing it on Mars.

But a CD could easily carry much more than just stories by Asimov. So to honor all the authors whose imagination propelled us into space they would send a whole library of science fiction to Mars as a gift to the future, the first Martian Library.

At that time The Planetary Society was working with a Russian Mars lander mission named Mars 94. The Russian Space Agency let us hitchhike a ride between planets. Sagan and Friedman asked me to direct this project. My job was to lead the effort to select and organize the contents, and record it on a space-ready CD disk. I had worked with Sagan before on the Voyager Golden Records on both Voyager spacecraft, so I already knew a little bit about sending disks with messages into space.

“Why only stories?” I asked, and soon we expanded the library to include science fiction images, spoken greetings from four people, and, of course, Orson Welles notorious War of the Worlds radio broadcast. (Unfortunately, back in 1993 we lacked room to include video files on the small 250 MB mini-CD we used)  The collection is called Visions of Mars. The fiction includes 90 stories in 9 languages from 26 countries and four centuries. It includes 7 full-length novels in English, French, German and Russian.

Soon after we began, the Mars 94  launch was postponed until 1996, which gave us 18 more months to work on making the disk. We needed every day. We started a world-wide search for Mars-related fiction and art. We tested our disk’s ability to survive the stresses of launch, landing, and very long exposure to the frigid Martian environment. An ordinary CD would fall apart.

The final mini-disk is made of very hard and chemically inert silica glass instead of plastic for this reason. The label on the disk tells future humans on Mars the specific technology required to play the disk. Probably they will have to build a computer to play a CD ROM. They can find the details in a museum of ancient communications technology. But if they have the technology to live on Mars, they will be able to build a 20th century CD player.

Finally on Nov. 16, 1996 the Mars 96 spacecraft was launched from Kazahkstan….. and fell into the Atlantic Ocean minutes later. The mission ended almost as soon as it began. When that happens to a spacecraft, everyone involved sees years of work destroyed in an instant. There is no Plan B. Painful barely describes it. Oh well, I thought, so much for getting my art to Mars.

Fast forward to 2003 and NASA’s mission to launch twin robot rovers Spirit and Opportunity to Mars. The popular science teacher Bill Nye (who succeeded Friedman as TPS Director), and astronomer Steven Squyres, leader of the rover’s camera team had an idea: a sundial serving as student experiment on Mars. Students could observe the same physics working on both planets. Steve’s cameras needed a color-test target to assure scientists they were seeing the correct colors of Mars. This target could also act as the sundial. All that was needed was a little post(called a “gnomon” by sundial experts) to cast the shadow.

Squyres and Nye assembled a small team to design the sundial, which we called the Marsdial. Among them were TPS’s Louis Friedman. Mars 96 had given both of us very useful experience in designing artifacts for Mars. We were joined by Tyler Nordgren, Jim Bell, and Woody Sullivan.

This team created the design on the Marsdial’s face. Some of the area was already occupied by four color patches. These perform the Marsdial’s most important job: assuring correct color in the photos, so could not be obstructed by our graphics.

To this we added the planetary orbits of Earth and Mars. The two planets are in the position they occupied at the time of the mission’s launch.  A ring surrounds the orbits. It is traditional for every sundial to bear a motto and date. Ours says “Two Worlds, One Sun”. The right and left sections of the ring (between the languages) are mirrors, to reflect the changing sky colors of Mars, otherwise invisible since none of the cameras can look straight up. The gray circle on the center is the position of the gnomon.

I suggested decorating the dial with the written name of Mars in many different languages. We had done the same thing on the title screen of Visions of Mars  to express the idea that NASA’s planetary exploration is done on behalf of the entire human species.

But the four edges around the base of the Marsdial were smooth and empty. In spacecraft jargon, this is unused real estate. So I proposed that we write a message on those four edges to explain the Marsdial’s purpose. Centuries from now Spirit or Opportunity may be discovered by the descendants of human colonists from Earth. To these “human martians” each rover would be a valuable relic of their history. They would understand the purpose of all the instruments, but they would not understand why the sundial is there.

Bill Nye and others wrote this message to explain why the sundial was sent to Mars. I added the illustration, including stick figures drawn by the young children of some of the mission scientists. Unlike Visions of Mars, the only technology required to read this message is a simple magnifying glass.

Spirit and Opportunity landed safely on Mars in 2004. Each carries one of the Marsdials. And each explored its Martian surroundings for a much longer mission than expected; Opportunity sent its latest nifty 3D view in April 2013. Following the rovers on their different journeys has felt to me like riding along with our little Marsdials across the martian landscape. And I had finally gotten something to Mars! But there was more to come.

Ever since the failure of Russia’s Mars 96, Louis Friedman had been trying to find a way of getting Visions of Mars to Mars. Finally he persuaded NASA to carry it aboard their Phoenix lander, destined for a successful 2008 landing on Mars. It carried our Martian Library to the northern polar regions, where it waits in deep-freeze. But someday this disk might be found and played by our great-great-grandchildren born on Mars.

That same year I was contacted by Marsdial designer Jim Bell, a lead scientist in NASA’s Curiosity mission. Jim wanted to use our Marsdial again as the camera calibration target. The Marsdial team discussed it and created a new motto for the new sundial, and a new message engraved around the sundial’s edges. However we were unable for technical reasons to change the graphic showing the positions of Earth and Mars, so the new dial has the planets at the same position as on the previous Marsdials. Perhaps some future historian on Mars will wonder why.

Like its cousins on the other rovers, Curiosity’s sundial will be photographed every day by the camera engineers, so students will have many chances to see how a shadow and a stick can tell you the time and date on Mars. Perhaps they or their children will someday get to Mars themselves

Why send these objects to Mars? Unlike all of the other science instruments they give us no new information about Mars. But for ordinary people they provide a way to feel connected to the project. The messages can excite the interest of children and non-scientists who do not care about the chemical composition of martian sand. These artifacts represent cultural and artistic aspects of our era that we send to distant times and places.  They also express optimism that we will in fact survive to enjoy such a future.

More about Mars Messages at


A Little Bit of Hawaiian On Mars

My friend and neighbor, the late Herb Kane, was the most able and respected artist showing Hawaii as it was before Western contact.

A historian as well as an artist, Herb played a large role in the design of the legendary voyaging canoe Hokule’a. I spent many a happy hour listening to stories about his incredible career. So when I had the chance to include Hawaiian among the languages decorating the surface of the sundial. But there are a bewildering variety of alternate names used by ancient astronomers, some quite long. Herb recommended using the name Hoku’ula—the red star—as the one that would resonate best with contemporary residents of the island.


Visions of Mars

Lomberg vom montage


TOP RIGHT: The title screen of the CD with Mars names in Hindi, Russian, Korean, Sumerian, Chinese, Thai, Hebrew, Arabic, and Inuktitut

TOP LEFT: The main menu screen showing the contents of the disk

MIDDLE: some of the science fiction art included on the disk from stories by H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, art from Frank Kelly Freas, and the Warner Brothers’ cartoon character Marvin Martian.

BOTTOM: The disk aboard Phoenix. The picture on the right was taken soon after landing. The left picture shows how dirty it was a few months later. Luckily the playing side is protected.


Lomberg sundial montage


TOP: Views of the Marsdial on NASA’s Phoenix lander.
Notice how dusty it has become.

MIDDLE  the Marsdial created by Steven Squyres, Jim Bell, Bill Nye, Woody Sullivan, Louis Friedman, Tyler Nordgren, and Jon Lomberg

BOTTOM  the faces of the 2004 and 2012 Marsdials and the engraved messages on the side panels





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