July 14 – The Friendly Red Planet

Today’s factismal: The first close-up images of Mars were sent by Mariner 48 years ago today.

Mars has always fascinated people, from the days when the Bablyonians called it Nergal and blamed it for catastrophes like war, famine, and single-party tickets. Today we don’t blame Mars for our disasters (though we do wonder about the Great Galactic Ghoul) but we are still as fascinated as ever. Is there life on Mars? Can people live on Mars? How many illudium 36 explosive space modulators do they have?

Though the last question is a little silly, the other two are quite serious. In the 1800s, telescopes had finally improved enough for people to see Mars as something more than just a blurry dot; it was now a big, blurry dots. And when people (like Giovanni Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell) see blurry things, they tend to describe things that may or may not actually be there, like the canals of Mars. And those things that get described can lead people to do all sorts of crazy things (like panic over a Halloween joke)

Percival Lowell's drawing of the martian canals (Image courtesy Percival Lowell)

Percival Lowell’s drawing of the martian canals
(Image courtesy Percival Lowell)

The first close-up picture of Mars (Image courtesy NASA)

The first close-up picture of Mars
(Image courtesy NASA)

The only way to stop the panic is to get a good view of what is actually on Mars and the only way to do that is to go there. And, in 1965, that’s exactly what we did. We sent a probe called the Mariner 4 to Mars, where it sent back 22 close-up images; the first images of the red planet. Though none of the images would win an award today, in 1965, they had an Earth shattering effect (but there was no ka-boom). They showed that the Earth wasn’t alone and that there were other planets where people might live.

A close-up of a crater on Mars (Image courtesy NASA's HiRISE)

A close-up of a crater on Mars
(Image courtesy NASA’s HiRISE)

The exploration of Mars continues today. And today they are taking pictures using cameras like the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment), an orbiting camera that could see a martian newspaper laid out on the ground. If you’d like to take part in the exploration, why not head over to NASA’s HiRISE Public Suggestion Page to tell them where you think the next pictures should be taken, or just to glory in all of the amazing images that have already been captured.
http://www.uahirise.org/hiwish/

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