With all of the excitement in anticipation of the imminent arrival of Hi-Res photos of Pluto and its Moon Charon from New Horizons’ flyby yesterday, this is a golden opportunity to remember how planetary exploration by space probe began. Fifty years ago, on July 14th, 1965, NASA’s Mariner 4 captured 23 closeup images of Mars, that dusty next-door neighbor of ours. It was the first time we had seen another planet so close.
NEW HORIZONS ECHOES MARINER 4
Just as we are about to echo with Pluto and New Horizons, the images arrived precisely one day after Mariner 4 successfully engaged its flyby of Mars. Fifty years later, we’re about to repeat the maneuver, in a cosmic dance that’s symphony to Mariner 4’s prelude.
Alan Stern, an academic expert at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, agrees: “You couldn’t have written a script that was better.” Just like Mariner 4, New Horizons is teasing science lovers, prudishly forcing us all to wait for hour after hour until the final unveiling occurs. One should note that today a debutante move faster; millennials aren’t waiting as long as the baby boomers did.
NEW IMAGES WILL COME QUICKER
This afternoon, NASA is receiving a smorgasbord of imagery and scientific data, which will all be transmitted to NASA headquarters in a matter of minutes. In 1965, however, each image Mariner 4’s television camera captured required 10 hours to be uploaded and transmitted.
“If someone had asked ‘What do you expect to see?’ we would have said ‘craters’ …[yet] the fact that craters were there, and a predominant land form, was somehow surprising,” reminisces Robert Leighton, Caltech geology professor, who dressed Marner with its camera, and its vast assemblage of instruments.
BEGINNINGS OF INTERPLANETARY EXPLORATION
Leighton and several more Caltech physicists, engineers and geologists were responsible for lifting the then-infantile NASA and its subordinate Jet Propulsion Laboratory out of the crib, and throwing it out the window hard enough to achieve orbit. woof.
John Grotzinger, chairman of Caltech’s Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences describes the atmosphere of the times: “These early flyby missions showed the enormous potential of Mars to provide insight into the evolution of a close cousin to Earth and stimulated the creation of a program dedicated to iterative exploration involving orbiters, landers and rovers.”
ALIEN AESTHETICS, HUMAN SENTIMENTS
Since Mariner 4 first graced Mars’ atmosphere, 19 probes have followed in kind, orbiting and landing on Mars. However, twenty-five other probes have failed. But the sacrifices were certainly not in vain, because the advent of imaging other planets coincided with our first true scientific enquiry into the planets, and sent the captivated the public at large with contradictory sentiments like the beauty in alienness.
Let’s enjoy Pluto, and celebrate history today.