Mariner 4 flies by Mars, July 14, 1965

-July 14, 2017

In 1965, EDN was in its 9th year. What else was happening in 1965?

  • Ranger 8 crashed into the Moon.
  • The classic family sci-fi show Thunderbirds debuted.
  • Alexey Leonov takes the first spacewalk.
  • The Soviet Union launched the Venera 3 space probe toward  Venus.
  • France launched its first satellite, Asterix-1.
  • A blackout left parts of the US and Canada without electricity for up to 13 hours.
  • The Intelsat 1 ("Early Bird") communications satellite was placed in orbit.

Read all of our coverage of EDN's 60th anniversary here.

Launched November 28, 1964, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Mariner 4 was one of 10 spacecraft named Mariner that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory designed and built between 1962 and 1973, spending approximately $554 million in the process. These robotic explorers, each launched on an Atlas rocket, were used to study the inner solar system and visit Venus, Mars, and Mercury for the first time.

Mariner 3, launched November 5, 1964, was also destined for Mars but experienced trouble immediately after takeoff and never entered the proper trajectory for a successful trip to Mars. According to NASA, “a protective shield failed to eject after the spacecraft had passed through the atmosphere.” As a result of this failure, none of the instrument sensors were uncovered, which left the craft with too much weight.

Mariner 3’s twin, Mariner 4, reached Mars on July 14, 1965, after 228 days of travel, and made its closest approach to the planet the next day. It was able to capture 21 black and white images of the Martian surface -- the first pictures taken of another planet from space. Several of the images from the Mariner 4 mission to Mars can be seen here.

Scientific instruments on the 574-pound Mariner 4 probe included an imaging system, helium magnetometer, plasma probe, cosmic-ray telescope, cosmic-ray detector, and cosmic-dust detector. A television camera was mounted on a scan platform at the bottom center of the spacecraft to obtain closeup pictures of the surface of Mars.

This is an artist’s rendering of the Mariner 3 and 4 spacecraft series. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

An interesting story emerged from the eagerness of employees at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to view the images Mariner 4 captured. As they waited for computers to process the data, Richard Grumm, who oversaw the tape recorder used aboard Mariner 4, had the 1’s and 0’s printed out on approximately three-inch-wide strips of ticker tape. He and his team used a set of colored pastels from a local art store and colored the numbers according to their brightness level to produce a preliminary picture. The completed image was later cut out of the office divider on which it was created, framed, and presented to JPL Director William H. Pickering.

In a July 1965 ceremony at the White House, Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director William Pickering presented President Lyndon B. Johnson with a picture of Mars taken by Mariner 4. From left are Pickering; Oran Nicks, NASA's director of lunar and planetary programs; Jack N. James, JPL's Mariner 4 project manager; President Johnson; and James Webb, NASA administrator.

The information obtained from Mariner 4’s flyby led scientists to conclude that Mars had a thin atmosphere and was more similar to the moon than to Earth. At least part of its surface was covered with large craters. Many scientists also felt, based on results from the Mariner 4 mission, that life on Mars was not a realistic possibility. An editorial published in the July 30, 1965, edition of The New York Times stated that “Mars is probably a dead planet.” This conclusion was subsequently challenged, however, because the mission had captured images of only part of the planet and had spent less than half an hour doing so. Research on the planet -- and the search for evidence that it did or ever could sustain life -- continues even now, almost 50 years later.

According to the JPL website, Mariner 4 far outlived its planned eight-month mission: “It lasted about three years in solar orbit, continuing long-term studies of the solar wind and making coordinated measurements with the Mariner 5 spacecraft,” a sister ship launched in 1967 to study Venus. Communications with Mariner 4 were terminated December 21, 1967.

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For more moments in tech history, see this blog.
EDN strives to be historically accurate with these postings. Should you see an error, please notify us.

Editor's note: This article was originally posted on July 14, 2014 and edited on July 14, 2017.

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