45 YEARS OF THE VIKING PROJECT
45 years ago, the Viking landers made their way toward Mars, and 44 years ago this week, the Viking 2 landed on the surface of Mars! The Viking program's primary goal was gathering high-resolution photos of the surface of Mars, understanding the structure and composition of the atmosphere and surface, and searching for evidence of life. The two orbiters spent a year photographing the surface of Mars and transmitting all of their findings back to Earth before landing on the surface.1
The findings from the Viking mission have allowed us to have a complete view of Mars. They showed that Mars has a variety of unique geological features — towering volcanos and lava plains, evidence of surface water, deep canyons, gorgeous wind-formed features, and cavernous craters. This was the very first time we had ever clearly seen the surface of Mars! The Viking orbiters also took and analyzed surface samples while on Mars, finding it was “best characterized as iron-rich clay.” The Viking spacecrafts also showed pressure changes and seasonal dust storms, meaning Mars has weather! Before the Viking spacecrafts, there were no real answers about what Mars looked like physically, what the surface is made out of, or even if Mars had weather! Because of the Viking mission, we can see Mars as a complex, tangible entity instead of a distant, unreachable void that is off among the stars —Mars started to feel less like a concept and more like a place.
The Viking spacecrafts were also instrumental in identifying Martian meteorites! The fact that we know definitively that pieces of the Red Planet fell here is entirely because of the Viking spacecrafts. Six years later, Drs. Johnson and Bogard were studying an unusual meteorite with a unique name — Elephant Moraine 79001, found in 1979. The two scientists discovered tiny amounts of gas trapped within the cavities in the rock and found they were an extraordinarily close match to the atmosphere of Mars. While answering questions we had about Mars, the Viking spacecrafts also answered questions we had about something far closer to home!
The Viking spacecrafts gave us so much in their time both orbiting Mars and during their time on Mars. We received groundbreaking information from them — insight into how Mars looks, what happens on the surface of Mars, and also allowed us to be able to identify Martian meteorites. If the Viking missions weren’t as successful, would we have the current Mars exploration missions we do? Would we be interested in living on Mars? Or would Mars continue to have been unreachable, out in the distance?
1 David R Williams, “Viking Project Information,” NASA (NASA, 2018), https://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/viking.html.