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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

Blast from the past: Mariner 4's images of Mars

Posted By Emily Lakdawalla

10-12-2012 9:15 CST

Topics: pretty pictures, history, amateur image processing, NASA Mars missions before 1996, global views, Mars

I was searching around for some images to use for a public talk and stumbled across some work that had been posted at several years ago: a couple of different amateur takes on the Mariner 4 image catalog, the first set of photos returned from Mars, dating to July 14, 1965. These were long before my time and as such I find myself totally unable to imagine myself having no knowledge of what Mars looked like up close, and then seeing these photos. What would I have made of them? Would I have been disappointed that they looked cratered like the Moon? Would I have understood what I was seeing at all?

Before I show the photos, here's a context map. Yes, the base map actually has canals drawn on it. It's a 1962 Air Force map drawn specifically for Mariner 4 mission planning (learn more about that here).

Location map for the Mariner 4 Mars images


Location map for the Mariner 4 Mars images
A base map shows the locations of all of Mariner 4's images of Mars, shot on July 14-15, 1965. Your eyes are not deceiving you: the base map on which the footprints are drawn has canals on it. This was, indeed, the map used by NASA to plan the encounter.

Here's one take on the complete catalog, assembled by Ted Stryk. He's worked his usual magic to bring out more coherent detail than would have been visible in processed images of the time.

The Mariner 4 image catalog

NASA / JPL / Ted Stryk

The Mariner 4 image catalog
A little commemorative compilation of the Mariner 4 images, along with the nearest decent context image of the correct hemisphere in the International Mars Patrol collection in the lower right hand corner.

Piotr Masek asked what really was visible in the images, and produced comparisons of most of the Mariner 4 photos to later Viking ones. Click on the photo to see ten more Mariner/Viking comparisons. Would we have come to different conclusions then, if we'd only been able to see slightly more clearly?

Mariner 4 images with Viking Orbiter comparisons

NASA / JPL / Piotr Masek

Mariner 4 images with Viking Orbiter comparisons
Mariner 4 didn't only see cratered terrain, but the images lacked the clarity needed to see Mars' more Earth-like features. This is Mariner 4 image #3. Click through to see many more such comparisons.
See other posts from December 2012


Read more blog entries about: pretty pictures, history, amateur image processing, NASA Mars missions before 1996, global views, Mars


Fred Merchant: 12/10/2012 04:33 CST

Thanks for doing that comparison. I rember well those first pictures coming in - and feeling disappointed even with the thrill of receiving those ancient pictures.

MikeHuggins: 12/10/2012 04:42 CST

This contemporary article gives you a good sense of the letdown kids like me (9 years old and then a fan of "The Outer Limits" and 1950s sci-fi movies) felt when the Mariner 4 photos were revealed publicly.,4281317&dq=mars+mariner+4&hl=en

Bob Ware: 12/11/2012 10:52 CST

Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I was 10 and devastated at the barren landscape but at the same time thrilled to see the planet close up!

Peter Blado: 12/11/2012 02:30 CST

Disappointment, hardly. In 1965 with me and others facing the draft, watching the race riots and Vietnam fighting footage on TV, the news of a successful Mariner flyby was a great diversion from the troubles of the time. Was I disappointed that later pictures showed there were craters and not canals? Yes. Was I disappointed that we had “real pictures from Mars” – not on your life! Double WOW! Until they were sharpened, one could look at them and imagine the dark areas as vegetation. When the later Viking probes landed, there still was the quiet faint hope that perhaps we’d see critters coming up to peer into the cameras. (I think I remember that, with tongue-in-cheek, Carl Sagan even mentioned that at the time.) No one really knew. Now, over 45 years later, we all are still blessed with individuals and a government that care enough to keep going back to that pockmarked red rock to unlock its secrets and rove around with cool cameras like we are all standing there on board. Have I been to Mars and the other planets in my lifetime? You ‘betcha’, what a ride so far; can’t wait for Pluto! Imagination is at the heart of exploration. Now go back and look at the first pictures again with your inner child’s eyes; don’t you see the castles, moats & forests? Feel a little of the WOW from ’65 until it was spoiled by the grown-ups? Remember 4 years after these pictures were taken we were standing on the Moon. Isn't that one of the main reasons we keep the Society going, to help insure the WOW doesn't go away and it all becomes just mundane research? Thanks for the historic pictures, and all the new WOW's, you put in your blog, Emily.

John Rumm: 12/11/2012 05:10 CST

I agree with others' sentiments. That we were even able to see ANY images of Mars taken by a passing spacecraft was in and of itself amazing, considering that we'd only succeeded the year before in finally photographing the Moon's surface from a spacecraft, after having tried unsuccessfully to do so for half a dozen years. To me, these blurry images are like the first photographs of the lunar farside taken in 1959 by the Soviet Luna 3, or the first images of Jupiter and Saturn captured by the Pioneer spacecraft in 1973-74 and 1979: remarkable icons from the earliest moments of interplanetary exploration--icons that deserve to stand the test of time and represent enduring tributes to human accomplishment.

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