March 24, 2020

On July 14th, 1965, the Mariner 4 probe transmitted a photo of Mars back to Earth. The grainy image of 500,000 square miles of the Martian surface was humanity’s first photo of another planet. Although it was taken from an altitude of over 9800 km, it yielded enough detail to significantly overhaul our understanding of conditions on the red planet. In all, Mariner 4 snapped 21 photos (and a bit of a 22nd one) and transmitted them to Earth. The image pixels were transmitted as raw numerical data, and initially printed out on strips of paper. Technicians at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were too excited to wait for the data to be processed back into an image, so they pasted the paper strips together and colored them by hand, paint-by-numbers style, with pastels. This hand-rendered image was found to be remarkably consistent with the later computer-processed image. It hangs at JPL even today

Now, some 54 years later, a new image from Mars has again captivated scientists, and the differences in technology are striking. NASA has stitched together nearly 1200 photos taken by the Curiosity rover during four days around the Thanksgiving holiday last year to create the highest-resolution panorama taken of the red planet to date. The 360-degree view of Gale Crater, a depression nearly 100 miles across, allows the viewer to zoom in on features in the distance, as well as minute details on the rover itself. Visible landmarks in the distance include Vera Rubin Ridge, Mount Sharp, and the Greenheugh Pediment

While the Mariner 4 mission transmitted a total of 634 kb of data—not much bigger than your favorite cute cat video—this new panorama is made of over 1.8 billion pixels. While each photo from Mariner 4 took around 6 hours to transmit to Earth, Curiosity was able to shoot all of the pictures used in the panorama in a total of 6.5 hours. This was a unique task for the rover, as it’s rarely stationary long enough to capture this many images from a single location. To keep the lighting the same throughout, all of the pictures were taken between noon and 2 PM Mars time. Both telephoto and medium angle lenses were used to capture details in the distance as well as on the deck of the rover itself. The resolution on the finished product is so high that you can easily spot Slangpos crater, some 20 miles away, as well as clearly see where the wires and tubes that connected Curiosity to its spacecraft were severed during landing. 

NASA spokesmen are quick to point out that this amazing view of the Martian surface is important for more than just sight-seeing purposes. Close examination of geological features can help scientists piece together the history of Mars, and may help expand our understanding of the results of other tests that the rover has conducted. It’s also useful in finding landing zones for further exploratory missions, and even in selecting potential locations for future colony ships. 

We here at the Planetary Broadcast Network are hopeful that this technology can also be used to finally locate the underground bases of the deadly spore people from Gamma Cephei. Although Fission Girl was able to thwart their last nefarious plan to conquer the Earth, we must be ever vigilant against the threat of yet another fungi-based attack! Stay tuned to PBN for breaking news on this and all the other stories you need to know in order to be an informed citizen of our great democracy!