Friday, November 13, 2009

Mariner Mission Anniversary


On November 13, 1971, the Mariner 9 Orbiter became the first artificial satellite of the planet Mars; it was thus the first space craft to successfully orbit another planet, only narrowly arriving before the Soviet Mars 2 and Mars 3, which both arrived within the month.

Mariner 9 exceeded all primary photographic goals by photo-mapping 100% of the red planet's surface, and also took the first close-range pictures of Mars’ irregular moons, Deimos and Phobos. Mariner 9

Olympus Mons
My favorite Mariner 9 photo is this stunning view of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system at nearly 80,000 feet. That’s 15-miles high… contrasted here to the largest volcano on Earth: Mauna Loa on Hawai'i Big Island. The Martian Mount Olympus is also considerably wider... if it rested in America, for example, it would fill the entire state of Arizona.

Launched in May 1971 by the Atlas-Centaur, Mariner 9 spent 349 days in orbit, and transmitted 7,329 images back to NASA, revealing polar caps, massive dust storms, wind and water erosion, ancient riverbeds, and a “grand canyon” stretching nearly 3,000 miles. This enormous "Valles Marineris" system is named after Mariner 9 in honor of its achievements.

Mariner 9
After nearly a year, the spacecraft turned off when its fuel depleted, but Mariner 9 will likely remain in stable orbit until at least 2022, after which the spacecraft will enter the Martian atmosphere.

For my fellow computer geeks (hold your breath and remember this was 1971): Control of Mariner 9 was through a central computer with an onboard memory of 512 words, capable of 95 commands. Data was stored on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which could store 180 million bits (slightly over 21MB).