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Close Up On The Planets

As we prepare for tonight’s finale of Cosmos (sadness!), what better way to prepare than with another look back at the cutting edge of science education… thirty years ago.

Close-Up On The Planets was a 1982 release by the Walt Disney Educational Media Co., directed by Charles Finance. It was produced during a very exciting era for space-related science; the Space Shuttle was making its first flights, and the two Voyager probes were returning a constant stream of new revelations from the outer solar system. Incidentally, it was also the same year that Epcot Center opened here on Earth, so you might say it was a perfect nexus of time, space, and events to forge a generation of geeks like myself.

What’s interesting about this film is what has changed in the years since and what hasn’t. Much of what is stated about Venus and Mars reflects current knowledge, as well as mysteries that still linger. In the 32 years since this film we’ve only sent two probes to Venus, neither of them landers, and much remains unknown about the planet. On the other hand, we’ve sent an armada of craft to Mars in the last decade, both orbiters and rovers, but answers about whether there was ever life on the red planet remain elusive.

We’ve learned the most, however, about the outer planets. In the years after this film was made, Voyager 2 made flybys of Uranus and Neptune, creating vivid portraits of those systems that went far beyond the tiny, featureless blobs shown here. Jupiter and Saturn have both been intensely studied by their own dedicated orbiters, and even distant Pluto will receive its first ambassador from Earth next year when New Horizons sails past on its way out of the solar system.

What we’ve learned in later years makes the information presented in the film seem charmingly quaint in retrospect. Instead of 15 moons, 67 have since been discovered orbiting Jupiter. Saturn has 62 confirmed satellites – 53 of them named – instead of 23. And Uranus and Neptune, as predicted in this film, were discovered to have large satellite systems of their own, with 27 and 14 known moons respectively. Neptune also harbors faint rings, a fact unconfirmed before Voyager 2′s 1989 visit. Jupiter’s moon Io is no longer the only world aside from Earth known to be geologically active; such activity has since been confirmed on Venus and with the ice volcanoes of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Neptune’s moon Triton.

Incidentally, Eugene Shoemaker, featured in the film, became a bit of a celebrity in the 1990s for his co-discovery of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which collided with Jupiter in 1994. Richard Terrile, the Voyager imaging scientist, continues his work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory today. And special acknowledgement must go to the computing equipment used by Harold Masursky, who had a sweet videodisc player hooked up to his Apple II. I would have been insanely jealous of that back in the day; it’s like having your own personal WorldKey for the solar system! Although I’m not sure why they showed him playing a video of him narrating a video, instead of just him narrating the video, but oh well – if you’ve got the videodisc player, you use the videodisc player!

And speaking of technology, how about those killer 1982-era animations of the planets? Those JPL computer-generated flybys were a constant presence when I was a kid, and if you recall they were shown during the descent portions of the original Spaceship Earth. I tell you, it all tied together

So now sit back and prepare yourselves… for a CLOSE-UP ON THE PLANETS.

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