Getting our first glimpse of the red planet
By Lauren Paulsen, Senior Columnist
Humans have always looked at the stars and wondered about visiting worlds up above, whether they are celestial in nature as the early humans thought, or more scientific, as humankind has discovered other planets. One of man’s greatest accomplishments was a successful landing on the moon. So why not go further? What about sending a probe to land on Earth’s red neighbour?
NASA had been planning attempts to launch probes to Mars with their Voyager Mars Program for some time, but with program cuts in 1968, the mission was cancelled entirely in 1971 because it was deemed too risky and expensive to launch two probes on a single rocket. Still, the planning and development for the Voyager Mars Program wasn’t to go to waste, as they were used as the basis for NASA’s new Viking Program.
NASA’s Viking program consists of two probes called Viking 1 and Viking 2. Both are made up of an orbiter and a lander. The landers are supposed to study the surface of Mars, while the orbiters take pictures from space and receive information from the landers. Although the Viking program was cheaper and simpler than the Voyager Mars Program, it is still the most ambitious, as well as most expensive—at a total cost of roughly $1 billion USD—mission ever sent to Mars.
Viking 1 and Viking 2 were launched in 1975. On July 20 of this year, Viking 1 safely landed on the surface of Mars, and then on September 3, Viking 2 joined it. The data and photographs that they relayed back have forever changed astronomers’ view of Mars. What has been discovered is that Mars used to have water on its surface. Astronomers learned this by looking at the geological formations—formations that are usually only made by large amounts of water.
Another task of the landers was to conduct biological experiments to determine if there was any life in Martian soil. Interestingly, one of the experiments came up positive for current life. However, since neither of the other experiments came back positive with any organic molecules, most scientists believe that the positive results were instead caused by some sort of non-biological chemical reactions in the soil. Many more experiments will need to be done to determine whether there truly is or isn’t any Martian life.
Before NASA’s attempts, the Soviets tried in 1962. Unfortunately, their lander, the Mars 1962B, was unsuccessful in launching. They tried again with probes Mars 2 and Mars 3, but Mars 2 crash-landed on the planet, and Mars 3 only managed to transmit for 20 seconds before failing, not even enough time to transmit a full picture. Although they were the first to land something human-made on the red surface, the Soviets’ attempts were ultimately unsuccessful.
The success of the Viking program is only the beginning, since more probes will be sent out to collect data. As knowledge more advancements are made, it doesn’t seem so farfetched that one day a manned craft may land on the surface of Mars.