July 20, 1976: NASA’s Viking 1 lands on Mars
For nearly half a century now, scientists have been flinging equipment into space with their sights set on Mars. Long before Curiosity, Opportunity, or Spirit set their treads on the Martian soil, Viking 1 touched down, marking the dawn of a new era in space exploration.
Reaching for new horizons
When Viking 1 was launched on August 20, 1975, the Martian surface was still a great mystery. Previously, only one other craft had managed to make a soft landing on Mars: Soviet probe Mars 3, which ceased transmitting after less than half a minute on the surface. After the nearly year-long journey through the vacuum of space, Viking 1 became humanity’s second successful soft landing on another planet and the first successful Martian lander.
Upon its arrival on the Red Planet, Viking 1 was tasked with studying our planetary neighbor. It gathered the first soil and air analyses. The dirt sample set the record that there was no life on Mars and that it was a cold, volcanic planet. The measurements of Martian air indicated the presence of a thin carbon dioxide atmosphere. Images transmitted back to Earth showed vast flood plains and sweeping riverbeds, but the ground was dry with no water in sight. Scientists would have to wait another 40 years for the exciting discovery of water on the Red Planet.
Separated at birth
Viking 1 surveyed and studied the Martian surface from its landing spot at Chryse Planitia for just over seven years. Final contact with the craft was made on November 11, 1982, and the mission ended two days later. Elsewhere on the planet, the lander’s twin, Viking 2, made a second successful touchdown in Utopia Planitia. It had a similar purpose, though it only lasted about three and a half years on the surface before its batteries failed and NASA put it to sleep, bringing the mission to an end on April 12, 1980.