Spaceflight Insider

Our Spaceflight Heritage: A first look at Mars

An artist's concept of the Mariner 4 spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Between 1962 and 1973, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory built ten spacecrafts to explore Mercury, Venus, and Mars. One of the great successes of the early American space program, Mariner 4’s 21 images were the first taken of another planet from space. The spacecraft continued to send images of the Martian surface through October of that year. On July 14, 1965, the Mariner 4 spacecraft obtained the first close-range images of Mars.

The first close-up image ever taken of Mars Image Credit: NASA

The first close-up image ever taken of Mars
Image Credit: NASA

Weighing a total of 575 pounds (261 kg), Mariner 4  carried a total of six scientific instruments, including: an imaging system, a helium magnetometer, a plasma probe, a cosmic-ray telescope, a cosmic ray detector, and a cosmic dust detector.

In addition to providing key information about how to safely deliver future missions to the Martian surface, the spacecraft far outlasted 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.

During the mission, scientists learned a great deal about the Martian surface. Mariner 4 and its sister spacecrafts beamed back unprecedented photos to Earth, revealing new Martian surface features such as volcanoes and valleys. Only the Moon was photographed in greater detail at this point. The engineering and science data collected from this mission laid the groundwork for all future exploration missions.

Mariner 4 concluded its mission on December 21, 1967.


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Heather Smith's fascination for space exploration – started at the tender age of twelve while she was on a sixth-grade field trip in Kenner, Louisiana, walking through a mock-up of the International Space Station and seeing the “space potty” (her terminology has progressed considerably since that time) – she realized at this point that her future lay in the stars. Smith has come to realize that very few people have noticed how much spaceflight technology has improved their lives. She has since dedicated herself to correcting this problem. Inspired by such classic literature as Anne Frank’s Diary, she has honed her writing skills and has signed on as The Spaceflight Group’s coordinator for the organization’s social media efforts.

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