Saturday, November 28, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 28: Mariner 4 Launched (1964)

It was on this date in 1964 that NASA launched its Mariner 4 spacecraft, which was the first spacecraft to make a successful Mars flyby. Returning two dozen tantalizing pictures of Mars in 1965, Mariner 4 also shattered the long-held belief that Mars was a hospitable world the could be home to advanced life.

It may be hard to believe now but, in 1964, there was no proof that Mars couldn't be home to advanced civilizations. At the time, the polar ice caps looked decidedly Earth-like and the changing surface of the planet was interpreted by some as the growing and dying of seasonal vegetation. This, combined with the famous canals, conspired to paint a picture of a planet friendly to life that served as inspiration for hundreds of science fiction comics, books, and films despite the fact that advances in science since the time of Percival Lowell and HG Wells were, stroke by stroke, painting a picture of a cold, dry world.

Still, the only way to know anything for sure was to visit Mars for a close-up look.

Upon flyby in 1965, Mariner 4 revealed a cold, desolate, virtually airless world totally incapable of supporting advanced life as we know it. Still, 50 years later, while some still cling to the hope for microbial life, it's clear that there is no advanced life on Mars, forcing sci-fi writers of the present to set their works in other solar systems rather than this one.  

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