Mars in Color: The Fascinating Story Behind NASA’s First Image of Another Planet

First Image of Mars Ever Seen on Television Showcased at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Pasadena, California – Tucked away in a corner of the second floor of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility in Pasadena is a small exhibit featuring the first image of Mars ever seen on television. This groundbreaking image, taken in 1965, is not a photograph but a “color by numbers” representation of data sent by NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft as it made its closest approach to Mars. While the actual photo was also released, the hand-colored representation continues to captivate visitors.

The Mariner 4 mission, which captured this historic image, marked the beginning of a series of missions that revolutionized our understanding of neighboring planets. Before Mariner 4, the best map of Mars was from the 1800s, and the highest-resolution image was captured by an Earth-based telescope in 1956. Mariner 4’s success inspired NASA engineers to proceed with further ambitious projects focused on photographing planets from space.

Mariner 4 faced its own challenges and setbacks. Its predecessor, Mariner 3, failed, and all hopes were placed on Mariner 4. The spacecraft launched on November 28, 1964, and traveled for 228 days before reaching Mars. Equipped with a television camera and six science instruments, Mariner 4 was designed to study the Martian surface and atmosphere.

On the night of July 14, 1965, Mariner 4 flew 6,118 miles above the Martian surface, capturing 22 images. The spacecraft’s digital imaging system, the first of its kind outside Earth, converted analog signals into digital format. Each image took 10 hours to transmit back to Earth at a rate of 8 1/3 bits per second.

While anxiously awaiting the release of the first photo, members of the Mariner 4 team took matters into their own hands. They converted the digital data into ones and zeros on ticker tape and began coloring the numbers based on each pixel’s brightness. Using pastels, the team created a color key, simulating a white-to-black gradient. This “color by numbers” artwork became the first image of Mars from space to be seen on television, unintentionally revealed to journalists before the actual photo.

The hand-colored version of the Mariner 4 image, showcasing the edge of the planet, the Martian surface, and the atmosphere’s clouds, served as a testament to the success of the mission. Not only did the camera prove effective, but the data obtained was also of high quality.

Mariner 4’s images unveiled craters and clouds on the Martian surface, surprising scientists. However, the snapshots only captured less than 1% of the planet’s surface, missing the diverse features that later missions would uncover. Despite this limitation, Mariner 4’s documentation of Mars ignited a curiosity that persists to this day. The Perseverance and Curiosity rovers, along with the Ingenuity helicopter and a fleet of orbiters, are continually exploring Mars and unlocking its mysteries.

The ability to witness a previously unseen world significantly impacts how we perceive ourselves and our place in the universe. This ongoing endeavor to understand Mars helps shape our understanding of who we are within the context of the cosmos.