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More Mariner 4

July 14, 2015

Few missions have changed our concept of the cosmos more completely than Mariner 4, the first craft to fly past Mars. Before its encounter with the Red Planet, the public thought of Mars as a world crossed by canals built by a dying civilization. And even many scientists expected to see evidence of some simple forms of life. Yet by the time Mariner’s work was done, Mars was seen as little more than a redder version of the Moon — a dead and dull little world.

Mariner 4 flew past Mars 50 years ago today. It snapped 22 crude pictures of the planet, covering about one percent of its surface. And as a mission scientist reported soon afterward, one type of feature dominated those pictures:

AUDIO: Man’s first close-up look at Mars has revealed the scientifically startling fact that at least part of its surface is covered with large craters. This is a profound fact, which leads to far-reaching fundamental inferences concerning the evolutionary history of Mars, and further enhances the uniqueness of Earth within the solar system.

And he pointed out what Mariner 4 did not see:

AUDIO: Although the flight line crossed several “canals,” sketched from time to time on maps of Mars, no trace of these features was discernible.

It turns out that Mariner 4 saw some of the most boring terrain on the planet. Later missions discovered ancient riverbeds, giant volcanoes, and a massive system of canyons. Even now, though, Mars is seen as a cold, barren world — a world transformed 50 years ago.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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