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Viking 1

Viking 1 was a spacecraft sent to Mars in the summer of 1976. It contained both an orbiter and a lander. The orbiter’s primary importance was to image Mars, which it did successfully. The lander, on the other hand, was sent to test for life. It gave some surprising findings which puzzled scientists for years!

An image of the model of the Viking Lander.

A model of the Viking Lander. – NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Basic Design

The Viking 1 Spacecraft included two separate vehicles. The first was an orbiting probe (usually just called an orbiter) with a very simple design. Its small tool set included heat, water vapor sensors, and a camera. The lander was a little more complex. Its tools included several biology test kits, weather sensors, and a few cameras.

An image of Olympus Mons, on Mars, taken by the Viking 1 orbiter.

A view of one of the tallest Mountains in the Solar System, Olympus Mons, taken by Viking 1.

Although, we should make an important distinction. The Viking 1 lander was not a rover. This means it was more or less stationary; it operated from the same spot for over 6 years!

Mission Objectives

The Viking mission was one of the earlier Mars Missions. As a result, it’s objectives weren’t super complex. NASA describes its task as simply: ‘to investigate the Red Planet and search for signs of life.’
To complete that task, Viking 1 needed to do a few things. For one, it needed to photograph much of Mars. At this point in time, we didn’t have a complete picture of the red planet. Additionally, Viking 1 would ideally study Mars’ soil and atmosphere. This would help us understand how the planet developed.

Viking 1 Launch and Landing

Viking 1 launched on August 20, 1975, from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It would spend about 10 months traveling to Mars, taking a few photos as it got close. The orbiter entered orbit on June 19, 1976. The lander touched down almost a month later, on July 20th. Originally, it was going to land on the 4th. But, the first landing site was too dangerous.

An image of the Martian surface taken by the Viking 1 orbiter.

A photo from the Viking 1 Orbiter. During its mission, it would take hundreds more. – Image Credit: Nasa

That’s not to say the actual landing wasn’t dangerous. When the lander came down, it fell down, hitting the ground with a shock. Shock absorbers helped to absorb some of the impact, so most everything was fine. Sadly, the fall did end up breaking the lander’s seismograph.

What Did Viking 1 Find?

Orbiter Findings

Despite its distance from Mars, the Viking 1 orbiter found a lot which is still relevant today. Notably, in a place called Chryse Planitia (where the lander went), the orbiter found evidence of water erosion. This suggests that the area might have contained liquid water in the past.
The orbiter’s main accomplishment, though, was imaging the entire surface of Mars! In the process, it found all sorts of important landforms. These include volcanoes, canyons, and rocks eroded by wind.

The presence of these things tells us a lot about the planet. Volcanoes mean that Mars has or had volcanic activity at some point. What’s more, canyons are further evidence of water erosion.

An image of liquid erosion on the surface of mars, taken by the Viking 1 orbiter.

A part of Mars’ surface which has been eroded. Scientists think wind and water played a part. – Image Credit: NASA, JPL, Malin Space Science Systems

Lander Findings

The lander’s findings are similarly interesting, though also somewhat unclear. While on Mars, it conducted four different biology tests. Each of these was a strong test for the presence of life. Three of them failed outright. But, that means one was positive for life on Mars!

This sounds super exciting, and it was when it happened, too. Yet, scientists were very skeptical of this finding. Nowadays, they largely agree that the result was invalid. In fact, it seems clear that life couldn’t form on Mars’ surface. Constant solar radiation and dangerous soil chemicals would instantly destroy bacteria. It would be nearly impossible for complex life to form there.

An image of an astronaut watering a tree on Mars.

Life on Mars? Only if we put it there.

What a gloomy finding. Although, it wasn’t the end of the lander’s mission. Throughout its 6 years on Mars, it kept taking data on the atmosphere, weather, and soil. This information has helped better our understanding of the planet for future missions.

Where is Viking 1 Now?

Like most space missions, Viking 1 did not return to Earth when it finished. The Orbiter, upon completing its task, simply deactivated and kept orbiting. We’re not sure if it has crashed into Mars or is still going. Oppositely, the lander just kept operating until we lost signal. Nowadays, it could even be in the same spot (though it’s totally non-functional.)

Other Great Resources:

More Facts about Viking 1: https://kids.kiddle.co/Viking_program

(Video) Viking Mars Lander Preview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggjD3i7efKU

Viking 1 Landing in Pictures: https://www.space.com/33468-viking-1-first-mars-landing-pictures.html


Written by: Noah Louis-Ferdinand