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The science team of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have assembled a collection of images of the same location on Mars that were taken by different Martian orbiters, beginning with the first fly-by by Mariner 4 in 1965 and ending with MRO’s HiRise camera. The image on the right, reduced in resolution to post here, shows these images superimposed on that location, with resolutions ranging from 1.25 kilometers per pixel (Mariner 4) down to 50 meters per pixel (MRO).
This mosaic essentially captures the technological history of the first half century of space exploration in a single image. Mariner 4 was only able to take 22 fuzzy pictures during its fly-by. Today’s orbiters take thousands and thousands, with resolutions so sharp they can often identify small rocks and boulders.
The mosaic also illustrates well the uncertainty of science. When Mariner 4 took the first pictures some scientists thought that there might be artificially built canals on Mars. Instead, the probe showed a dead cratered world much like the Moon. Later images proved that conclusion to be wrong as well, with today’s images showing Mars to be a very complex and active world, with a geological history both baffling and dynamic. Even now, after a half century of improved observations, we still are unsure whether life there once existed, or even if exists today.