Big Island artist’s art to land on Mars, again

Curiosity’s Martian sundial — an instrument and a special message — will land on Mars aboard NASA’s latest mission on Sunday, Aug.5.

Curiosity’s Martian sundial — an instrument and a special message — will land on Mars aboard NASA’s latest mission on Sunday, Aug.5.


Big Island artist Jon Lomberg, working with a team of NASA space scientists, created the new message artifact destined for the surface of Mars: A sundial whose four edges each contain a panel of text and image, written by Jim Bell and the NASA sundial team and accompanied by graphics designed by Lomberg. This will be the fifth artifact Lomberg designed to be sent to Mars, and, if landed safely, the fourth to arrive intact on the Red Planet.

Along with his work now leaving the Solar System on NASA’s Voyager Golden Record, this artist has sent more artwork into space than any other person on Earth.

“I’m practically a Martian,” Lomberg said.

NASA’s latest and most ambitious scientific mission to Mars is the Mars Science Lander called Curiosity. Like its predecessors on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, this new sundial doubles as the camera color calibration target for the Mastcam camera system that is the rover’s primary instrument for imaging the surface of Mars.

Curiosity’s “Marsdial”provides a valuable educational activity for students, who can use the image of the sundial transmitted from Mars to Earth to learn about the ways that such simple but elegant instruments can be used to determine the time, date, season, and latitude on a planetary surface. The global spirit of space exploration is symbolized by the decoration on the “face” of the Marsdial — the names of Mars in 16 languages, including ancient Sumerian, Mayan, Inuktitut and Hawaiian.

The original idea for the educational project came from Bill Nye The Science Guy, now the executive director of The Planetary Society. MER imaging scientist Professor James Bell led the team, which included Lomberg, to design the sundial and its message. Bell is president of The Planetary Society and a planetary scientist from Arizona State University in Tempe.

The message on the edges of Curiosity’s new sundial is not meant for Martians or other extraterrestrials. Rather it is really meant for humans — “Martian humans” — who will be on Mars many decades or centuries from now.

“Someday, today’s Mars missions will be the stuff of history, and some explorer, prospector or geologist will find our long-lost robots. The message is for them—we hope that they can easily find somebody who understands English, the primary language of the nation that launched this spacecraft,” said Lomberg.

“The illustrations of the message try to evoke our species’ long fascination with the Red Planet. They use classical imagery of the god Ares, as well as astronomers’ drawings of Mars, the Viking lander and other Mars-bound spacecraft. The footprints, in the sands of Mars and the sands of time, symbolize humanity’s wandering spirit that has led us to Mars.”

Bell and Lomberg were both on the team that designed the similar sundials on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. That sundial carried a different date and motto, and a different message along the edges using children’s art and Lomberg’s drawings.

That team included inputs from Diane Bollen, Lou Friedman, Sheri Klug, Tyler Nordgren, Bill Nye, Steve Squyres, Larry Stark, Woody Sullivan and Aileen Yingst.

Lomberg was design director for NASA’s Voyager Golden Record and a long-time collaborator of Carl Sagan. He won an Emmy Award for his work as chief artist of the TV series COSMOS and designed the opening animation for the film “CONTACT.”

Along with the two sundials on the MER rovers, and the Visions of Mars DVD aboard NASA’s Phoenix mission, this is the fifth message artifact of his design that Lomberg will have launched toward the Mars. The first was on Russia’s failed Mars 96 mission. Three have made it there, perhaps destined to be received by some future human society on Mars. The fifth is now on its way.

A special public viewing of the Aug. 5 landing will be held at the Galaxy Garden in Honaunau. Call 328-8084 for more information about this event, which will be broadcast live on NASA’s Mars landing coverage. Visit

The Galaxy Garden, the world’s first walk-through model of the Milky Way Galaxy, opened to the public on Oct. 21, 2007. Designed by Lomberg, this 100-foot diameter garden accurately maps the galaxy using almost 1,000 carefully selected plants to represent actual stars and nebulae. The centerpiece of the model is a unique fountain that represents the giant black hole at our galaxy’s center.


Lomberg worked with astronomer Leo Blitz of the University of California at Berkeley, an expert in the structure of the spiral galaxy in which our solar system resides. Blitz’s maps of the galaxy were traced out on a quarter acre of lawn in rows of plants that show the galaxy’s structure. This unique art/science/landscaping project is the first of its kind anywhere on Earth.

The garden is located on the grounds of the Paleaku Peace Gardens Sanctuary, a nonprofit, 9-acre botanical garden.Visit The Paleaku Astronomy Center is now open for guided daytime tours of the galaxy, as well as evening stargazing events and visits by students. Major funding for the creation of the garden came from the Change Happens Foundation. Seed money was provided by the New Moon Foundation.

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