Life on Mars? It's a desert out there...

MEANWHILE, on a small planet far away…The eager scientists crowded excitedly round their monitors to view the first pictures ever sent back live from the surface of Earth.

MEANWHILE, on a small planet far away…

The eager scientists crowded excitedly round their monitors to view the first pictures ever sent back live from the surface of Earth.

"Wow," said one, "look at those giant trees on the horizon."

"And that depression in the middle distance," said another. "It's either a comet impact crater or evidence of wind erosion."


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Er, actually, no, guys. That's my garden you're looking at. The giant trees are the border of my flowerbed (sorry it's a bit untidy just now). And the depression is further evidence of life - it's my footprint in the mud.

Oh, and that curious metal object I just tripped over - it's now in the bin, so any pictures it sends back to you may be a little dark.

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Now, I'm sorry if you have been excited by the images transmitted from Mars by the Spirit probe. This is probably the most thrilling bit of PR for space exploration since 1969, so I was quite intrigued too.

But, forgive me - was it really worth all that dosh, time and expertise to get a few snaps that look suspiciously like a low-level view of one of the duller bits of the Arizona desert?

Maybe it's sour grapes because the Americans, once again, have pictures to show the world while our faithful Beagle has got lost in space.

Maybe it's my upbringing in a cynical age of conspiracy theories.

Maybe it's because I saw the movie Capricorn One at an impressionable age.

But when I look at them closely, those pics of "Mars" really do look VERY like the desert.

If you want to take a good look for yourself, the images can be found in something like glorious detail at the Nasa website, www.nasa.gov.

If you've got an old pair of those red and green glasses they used to give out at novelty movies, you'll even be able to see the Mars shots in 3D.

Now that really is a technological breakthrough. Though the cardboard frames do make a roomful of Nasa scientists look somehow a little less impressive.

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NOW, the Arizona desert, in life, really is impressive. I know because I've just been there.

It is one of the most "different" places I've seen, despite familiarity from countless old westerns. It is also, in its different way, stunningly beautiful.

Mind you, the word "desert" seems a bit of a misnomer, certainly for the area round Tucson, where I saw in the new year.

Certainly there's bare rock and stony earth to stumble over, but there's also a great deal of life.

The plants may be mostly cactus, but there's a profusion of them, in a bewildering variety of types and shapes.

There are dazzling and gorgeous birds aplenty, from the pretty cactus wren to the lurid red cardinal.

I heard, but didn't see, a pack of coyotes. And, sadly, I failed to spot a roadrunner.

But I did see a hummingbird right outside the front door. Yes, really - and not just once, but several times.

Maybe those "Mars" pictures were taken in the bleaker land of New Mexico.

The only disappointment of the whole trip came at Chicago airport, where we first made landfall on US soil.

We had been primed to expect the immigration officials to be surly, unfriendly, devoid of smiles or humour. Especially as I have a beard which one critic of this column thought made me look like a Muslim.

So we stood in line - a long, winding line - at Passport Control, looking forward to a hostile reception. Only to meet a uniformed official who was friendly, polite, efficient and helpful.

Whatever happened to the orange alert, or America's supposed siege mentality?

Of course, friendly and polite is what most Americans are most of the time - even if they are dangerously addicted to driving big cars, and scarily brainwashed into worship of the star-spangled flag.

The exceptions mostly seem to work as air crew on American Airlines. Do they not know that a smile is supposed to come as standard with the uniform?

It may well be, of course, that crews flying into the States are a little more nervous than usual just now.

But I would not feel safer in flight if I knew there was an air marshal riding shotgun. Don't they know what a gunshot does to a pressurised cabin?

I fail to see how a glorified policeman could deter any potential hijacker bent on suicide. And it would be no better to be blown out of the sky by a cop than by a terrorist.

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