Viking: Remembering Humanity’s First Successful Mission On Mars Surface

Taken by the Viking 1 lander shortly after it touched down on Mars, this image is the first photograph ever taken from the surface of Mars. It was taken on July 20, 1976. The primary objectives of the Viking mission, which was composed of two spacecraft, were to obtain high-resolution images of the Martian surface, characterize the structure and composition of the atmosphere and surface and search for evidence of life on Mars. Credit: NASA
Taken by the Viking 1 lander shortly after it touched down on Mars, this image is the first photograph ever taken from the surface of Mars. The primary objectives of the Viking mission was to obtain high-resolution images of the Martian surface, characterize the structure and composition of the atmosphere and surface and search for evidence of life on Mars. Credit: NASA

July 20. Sound like a familiar date? If you guessed that’s when we first set foot on the Moon 47 years ago, way to go! But it’s also the 40th anniversary of Viking 1 lander, the first American probe to successfully land on Mars.

The Russians got there first on December 2, 1971 when their Mars 3 probe touched down in the Mare Sirenum region. But transmissions stopped just 14.5 seconds later, only enough time for the crippled lander to send a partial and garbled photo that unfortunately showed no identifiable features.

The late, great Carl Sagan stands next to a model of the Viking lander. Credit: NASA
The late, great Carl Sagan stands next to a model of the Viking lander. Credit: NASA

Viking 1 touched down on July 20, 1976 in Chryse Planitia, a smooth, circular plain in Mars’ northern equatorial region and operated for six years, far beyond the original 90 day mission. Its twin, Viking 2, landed about 4,000 miles (6,400 km) away in the vast northern plain called Utopia Planitia several weeks later on September 3. Both were packaged inside orbiters that took pictures of the landing sites before dispatching the probes.

The first color photo taken of the Martian surface by the Viking 1 lander on July 21, 1976. The rock strewn landscape is a familiar one seen in photos taken by many landers since. Credit: NASA
The first color photo taken of the Martian surface by the Viking 1 lander on July 21, 1976. The rock strewn landscape is a familiar one seen in photos taken by many landers since. Credit: NASA

Viking 1 was originally slated to land on July 4th to commemorate the 200th year of the founding of the United States. Some of you may remember the bicentennial celebrations underway at the time. Earlier photos taken by Mariner 9 helped mission controllers pick what they thought was a safe landing site, but when the Viking 1 orbiter arrived and took a closer look, NASA deemed it too bouldery for a safe landing, so they delayed the the probe’s arrival until a safer site could be chosen. Hence the July 20th touchdown date.

My recollection at the time was that that particular date was picked to coincide with the first lunar landing.

I’ll never forget the first photo transmitted from the surface. I had started working at the News Gazette in Champaign, Ill. earlier that year in the photo department. On July 20 I joined the wire editor, a kindly. older gent named Raleigh, at the AP Photofax machine and watched the black and white image creep line-by-line from the machine. Still damp with ink, I lifted the sodden sheet into my hands, totally absorbed. Two things stood out: how incredibly sharp the picture was and ALL THOSE ROCKS!  Mars looked so different from the Moon.

The Viking 1 Lander sampling arm created a number of deep trenches as part of the surface composition and biology experiments on Mars. The digging tool on the sampling arm (at lower center) could scoop up samples of material and deposit them into the appropriate experiment. Some holes were dug deeper to study soil which was not affected by solar radiation and weathering. The trenches in this ESE looking image are in the "Sandy Flats" area of the landing site at Chryse Planitia. Credit: NASA
The Viking 1 Lander sampling arm created a number of deep trenches as part of the surface composition and biology experiments on Mars. The digging tool on the sampling arm (at lower center) could scoop up samples of material and deposit them into the appropriate experiment. Some holes were dug deeper to study soil which was not affected by solar radiation and weathering. Credit: NASA

One day later, Viking 1 returned the first color photo from the surface and continued to operate, taking photos and doing science for 2,307 days until November 11, 1982, a record not broken until May 2010 by NASA’s Opportunity rover. It would have continued humming along for who knows how much longer were it not for a faulty command sent by mission control that resulted in a permanent loss of contact.

The first Mars panorama taken in Chryse Plantia by Viking 1. Credit: NASA
The first Mars panorama taken in Chryse Plantia by Viking 1. Click to supersize. Credit: NASA

Viking 2 soldiered on until its batteries failed on April 11, 1980. Both landers characterized the Martian weather and radiation environment, scooped up soil samples and measured their elemental composition and send back lots of photos including the first Martian panoramas.

Each lander carried three instruments designed to look for chemical or biological signs of living or once-living organisms. Soil samples scooped up by the landers’ sample arms were delivered to three experiments in hopes of detecting organic compounds and gases either consumed or released by potential microbes when they were treated with nutrient solutions. The results from both landers were similar: neither suite of experiments found any organic (carbon-containing) compounds nor any definitive signs of Mars bugs.

The first color picture taken by Viking 2 on the Martian surface shows a rocky reddish surface much like that seen by Viking 1 more than 4000 miles away. Credit: NASA
The first color picture taken by Viking 2 on the Martian surface shows a rocky reddish surface much like that seen by Viking 1 more than 4,000 miles away. Credit: NASA

Not that there wasn’t some excitement. The Labeled Release experiment (LC) actually did give positive results. A nutrient solution was added to a sample of Martian soil. If it contained microbes, they would take in the nutrients and release gases. Great gobs of gas were quickly released! As if the putative Martian microbes only needed a jigger of  NASA’s chicken soup to find their strength. But the complete absence of organics in the soil made scientists doubtful that life was the cause.  Instead it was thought that some inorganic chemical reaction must be behind the release. Negative results from the other two experiments reinforced their pessimism.

Frost on Utopia Planitia photographed by Viking 2. Credit NASA
Frost on Utopia Planitia photographed by Viking 2. Click to visit NASA’s Viking image archive (not to miss!) Credit NASA

Fast forward to 2008 when the Phoenix lander detected strongly oxidizing perchlorates originating from the interaction of strong ultraviolet light from the Sun with soils on the planet’s surface. Since Mars lacks an ozone layer, perchlorates may not only be common but also responsible for destroying much of Mars’ erstwhile organic bounty. Other scientists have reexamined the Viking LC data in recent years and concluded just the opposite, that the gas release points to life.


A fun, “period” movie about the Viking Mission to Mars

Seems to me it’s high time we should send a new suite of experiments designed to find life. Then again, maybe we won’t have to. The Mars 202o Mission will cache Martian rocks for later pickup, so we can bring pieces of Mars back to Earth and perform experiments to our heart’s content.