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Recalling the perils of Mars exploration: Red Planet Day

November 28, 2013|By Monte Morin
  • This image is among the first close-up photographs taken of another planet. It was taken by Mariner 4 as it flew past Mars in 1964. The spacecraft, which launched on Nov. 28, 1964, executed the first successful mission to Mars. Red Planet Day commemorates that launch.
This image is among the first close-up photographs taken of another planet.… (NASA )

Move over Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, there's another observance that's looking to share the spotlight this Thursday: Red Planet Day.

That's right, Thursday, Nov. 28, marks the 49th anniversary of the launch of Mariner 4, the first spacecraft ever to complete a successful mission to Mars. Roughly eight months after its launch, the flyby probe gave us our first close-up look at the Red Planet.

These days, as the Mars rover Curiosity makes wheel tracks all over Gale crater and zaps rocks with its ChemCam laser, this might not seem like a big deal. However, Red Planet Day celebrants know that successful Mars missions are not routine.

"More than half the missions to Mars have failed. It's hugely risky," said Chrys Rodrigue, a Cal State Long Beach professor who has worked with NASA and teaches a course on Martian geography. "It's been described as the Bermuda Triangle of the solar system."

Mars aficionados also recognize that Mariner 4's images forever changed humanity's view of the planet. Up until the Mariner 4 flyby in July 1965, people could still entertain thoughts of green vegetation and canals on the planet's surface.

Tyler Nordgren, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Redlands, said our planetary naivete was enormous at the time. In 1957, the Disney program "Mars and Beyond" speculated on a variety of exotic life forms that might have existed on the planet. 

"Back in the late 1950s we thought the worst-case scenario was that we would find only simple vegetation, you know, grasses, lichen," Nordgren said.

So when Mariner 4 sent back images of a barren world, it was a sobering sight, Nordgren said. "We realized how precious the Earth is."

Nordgren has become very familiar with images of Mars since then. He helped to develop Curiosity's calibration target, a panel that looks somewhat like a color wheel with a joystick handle sticking up from the center.

Curiosity uses the target to adjust color hues in its images to make sure we are seeing Mars as it really appears.

The joystick handle, or spindle, is actually a sun dial that casts a shadow on the different sections of the target so that the color can be fine-tuned for shade.

Nordgren's handiwork has been seen by people across the globe. (The same devices were used on the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which Nordgren also helped to develop.)

"These Mars dials, as they call them, become the most photographed objects on the surface of Mars," Nordgren said. "There's a delight that wells up inside you when you see one of these photographs and down in the corner is that little dial."

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