November 28 – Red Headed Menace

Today’s factismal: There have been 55 probes to Mars since the first one launched 52 years ago today.

Back in 1964, the US and the USSR had one thing in common – neither one of them could get a spacecraft to Mars. The two countries were engaged in a space race, trying to show that they could do more and go further than the other but all of their probes to Mars failed. The USSR had launched five different probes to Mars, only one of which had made it out of Earth orbit. The US had launched just one probe but the cover on it had failed to separate, meaning that the probe couldn’t make it to Mars. And then came Mariner IV.

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)

Based on the successful Ranger probes that had explored the Moon, the Mariner was designed to take photos of Mars’ surface and send them back to Earth; it also would measure cosmic rays in space, look for changes in solar wind and plasma, and discover how much dust was in the Solar System. All of these things would be important if we were ever to travel to Mars. At 2:27:23 PM UTC on November 28, 1964, atop an Atlas missile with an Agena booster, the Mariner probe headed for the skies and then for Mars. It would fly past the Red Planet 228 days later and send back the first close-up images ever taken of the planet.

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

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

Today there are eight different probes in orbit around or exploring the surface of Mars. They are telling us about its climate, its atmosphere, its composition, how it has changed over time, and (most importantly) if it has life living below its surface. And the best part of the exploration of Mars is that you can be a part of it. Just fly over to Planet Four: Terrains and tell them what you see in each image (craters, sand dunes, little green men). The scientists will use your classifications to help them understand how Mars has changed over the years. To learn more, land on:

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