Revisiting the mission to Mars by American spacecraft Viking 1, launched almost five decades ago
July 20, 1969 marked a defining time in the history of mankind – in fact it was described as “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, as uttered by American astronaut Commander Neil Armstrong after becoming the first man to land on the Moon, along with fellow American and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin.
History was to be made again just six years later on August 20, 1975 when NASA’s Viking 1, an unmanned planetary probe, was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, into space by a thrust from a Titan 3/Centaur rocket on a mission to Mars, about 54.6 million kilometres from Earth (shortest distance).
The American Viking 1 spacecraft was part of a two-fold mission to investigate the second-smallest planet in the Solar System – the fourth planet from the Sun – and search for signs of life. The mission included both an orbiter and a lander designed to take high-resolution images, and study the Martian surface and atmosphere.
In June 1976 it entered into orbit around Mars, imaging the planet’s surface with the goal of locating a suitable landing site for its lander. And on July 20, 1976 it became the first spacecraft to successfully land on the surface of Mars, providing a window into the climatic conditions on the Red Planet. It was also the first spacecraft ever to remain there for the long term (as previous Soviet probes had been short-lived).
The first close-up photographs of the rust-coloured Martian surface were taken in Chryse Planitia, the region on which the Viking 1 lander had touched down – and continued operating until November of 1982.
The Viking 2 lander, meanwhile, operated in another region called Utopia Planitia between September 1976 and April 1980.
During the entire span of both Viking missions, the two orbiters imaged the entire surface of Mars at a resolution of 150-300 metres, and the two landers sent home over 1,400 images of the planet’s surface.
In its six years on Mars, Viking 1’s robotic arm and special biological laboratory carried out the first Martian soil sample. Though it found no traces of life, Viking 1 did an amazing job at helping to better characterise Mars as a cold planet with volcanic soil, a thin, dry carbon dioxide atmosphere and clear evidence for ancient channels where massive floods may have occurred at some point in time.
Amazingly, the landers and orbiters of Viking 1 and Viking 2 lasted for years although each mission was only supposed to last 90 days after landing, which is an astonishing feat – and a ‘stellar’ boon for astrophysicists and scientists who would go on to rely on those images and data derived on Mars, defining experts’ views of the planet for the decades to come.
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