40 years ago today the US govt sent a taxpayer-funded robot to invade an alien hostile world

Phenomenal photographic proof of planet plundering

Pics The surviving members of the Viking Mars probe team have been celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first probe to make it down onto the surface of the Red Planet, send back pictures, and perform scientific experiments.

The Viking 1 lander hit dirt on Mars on July 20, 1976, 16 days late. The probe had been planned for touchdown on July 4 to celebrate America's bicentennial, but as the probe got into orbit around Mars it was decided that the proposed landing site was too risky and another had to be found.

The Viking lander detached from its orbiter and headed down for a landing. It used a technique similar to the one that put Curiosity on the surface four years ago. The lander shot through the upper atmosphere protected by a heat shield, and then deployed parachutes that slowed it to 60 meters per second (65.6 yards per second).

That's still too fast for a survivable landing, so after dropping its parachutes, the Viking probe made it down the last few hundred meters under rocket power, eventually coming to a gentle rest on the surface at 21:22 UTC.

It wasn't the first probe to make it to the surface – the Soviets scooped that honor with the Mars 3 lander. However, while it reached the surface safely, it lasted less than 15 seconds before dying.

The first ever picture of the Martian surface

The first ever picture of the Martian surface

Viking 1, however, performed perfectly and within 25 seconds was sending its first picture of the Martian surface back to Earth using its high-gain antenna. Within a day we had our first color image, showing that the Red Planet really did live up to its name.

Viking wasn't there just to take pretty pictures – one of its remits was to test the soil for signs of water and possible microbial life. The results were inconclusive. One sample appeared to show the necessary chemical signatures for life, but not conclusively.

It didn't help that Viking could literally only scratch the surface of Mars. Future missions are planning to drill down much deeper and maybe find the remnants of life on what appears to be a barren, rocky desert planet.

Viking 1 was only supposed to have a 90-day lifespan but, like the Opportunity probe that followed on, vastly exceeded expectations. The lander derived power from a decaying nuclear source and this kept it broadcasting for over six years. It might have lasted longer but for a fatal human flaw.

NASA was doing a software update on the lander in November 1982 in an attempt for more efficient use of the lander's battery array. Sadly, a software command that was sent out borked the lander's computer and the lander never broadcasted again. Its Viking 2 sister ship lasted just three years before shutting down.

It was to be over a decade before NASA sent another probe, but the Viking missions stand as a key milestone in our exploration of our nearest planetary neighbor. The rovers that trundle across the Martian surface today both owe a huge debt to Viking 1 and her sister. ®

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