How NASA Dealt With Images of an Alien Planet in the 1960s

The alien planet was Mars and the process was just a bit simpler than it is today

Mars Mosaic
A mosaic of Mars from Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 JPL

When the New Horizon’s space probe snapped photos of Pluto during its flyby, NASA released the most detailed image of the dwarf planet on Instagram an hour before the official news release and racked up the "likes." That’s what happens when a space agency visits another world in 2015. In the 1960s, the process was different, Mika McKinnon reports for

Mars was the target and spaceships equipped with cameras were the variously numbered Mariner probes. You may recall that the first images of Mars were extrapolated from data, paint-by-numbers style, by impatient scientists who just couldn't wait for a photo of the planet.

But by 1969 the effort was more impressive, with Mariner 6 and 7 completing a complex choreographed dance past Mars. Mariner 6 went first and five days later, Mariner 7 followed with maneuvering instructions improved by the experience of its partner. McKinnon writes:

The cameras alternated taking pictures so a new photo was taken every 42 seconds. Mariner 6 sent home a total of 75 images during its flyby (49 far, 26 near) and Mariner 7 sent home another 126 images (93 far, 33 near), a massive improvement over the measly 21 images returned by Mariner 4 five years earlier. The probe pair sent home 800 million bits of data during the two flybys.

Those photos weren’t assembled automatically by computer algorithms, however. Experts had to piece together the photo mosaic by hand, on a wire-frame globe of Mars. In the header image, Mariner 6 was responsible for the top two horizontal rows and 7 for the pictures from the center to the bottom right and of the south polar cap. 

In another post, McKinnon describes the mosaic process that expert Patricia “Patsy” Conklin and others used to assemble photos from Mariner 9 — one that involved more mosaics made by hand.

While working to assemble such images must have been rewarding, Conklin and her colleagues would likely shake their heads in amusement and disbelief with the ease at which amateurs can now manipulate images from NASA and see Pluto on Pluto or the dwarf planet holding a heart

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