42nd Anniversary of Viking 1, the first-ever American Mars Lander

42nd Anniversary of Viking 1, the first-ever American Mars Lander

Scientists at NASA celebrate yet another anniversary of the Viking 1, which marked the beginning of Mars exploration.

All of us remember the 20th of July as the day humanity stepped onto the moon of the Earth but that is not all. The first-ever Mars lander from NASA, Viking 1, touched the Red Planet on 20th July 1976. Despite the fact that the technology of this satellite is more than four decades old, it is still considered a massive help in today’s world. The Viking Program, which launched two orbiters and two landers towards Mars, carried a diverse variety of instruments to help astronomers in exploring the interior of the Martian surface. Researchers are still struggling to understand the results of the experiments conducted back then. All of this lead us to a conclusion that Viking 1 can be regarded as an ancestor of the Insight Mission of NASA, which is expected to reach Mars later this year.

The Viking Program focused primarily on detecting life and all its experiments pointed clearly in that direction. The results of these experiments were quite exciting but having said that, they were confusing as well. The samples of the Martian soil were heated in an oven until they started boiling. A Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer (GCMS) was used to analyze the resulting vapors in order to find any organic molecules. It was a complete surprise for the scientists of those times as organics are extremely common throughout the cosmos. The presence of organic molecules on asteroids and comets leads us to believe that the meteorite impacts will ensure regular supply of organics on the Mars. Things haven’t changed much as the scientists of today’s technological world are equally bewildered by this fact.

Recently, a group of researchers reexamined the data from the Vikings and found that the landers detected a chemical, called Chlorobenzene, on the Martian surface. It is not an indicator of life but researchers think that it could have been created as a byproduct of a chemical reaction between organic carbon and Perchlorate. If this theory of scientists is accurate, Vikings found the signs of life on Mars some 40 years ago. However, the Lead Author of this study, Melissa Guzman, mentioned that there are reasonable doubts in the origin of the carbon. She told the world that some of the instruments had organic contaminations which adds the element of ambiguity into the findings. She talked about sending life-detecting instruments to the Red Planet in the following words:

We haven’t sent life-detection instruments to Mars since Viking sent its three biology experiments. But Curiosity has done a fantastic job of further characterizing the habitability of Mars.”

Humanity is striving hard to find signs of life in other parts of the universe, besides Earth, and the fact that NASA wants to send a life-detection rover to Mars in 2020 is a proof of it. Similarly, the ExoMars program aims to launch a European rover towards Mars in July 2020. This satellite have a special instrument which will search for organic molecules on the basis of their ‘Homochirality’. The name given to it is the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA). Guzman expressed her views about all these developments by saying,

We’re in a very exciting time for astrobiology, because there is momentum to send life-detection instruments both to Mars and to some of the icy satellites — like [Saturn’s] Enceladus and [Jupiter’s] Europa — around the gas giants who have shown promise of habitability for life.”

Bruce Banerdt, the Principal Investigator of the InSight Mission, explained that both of the Vikings, Viking 1 and Viking 2, had seismometers (used for detecting Marsquakes and meteor strikes) on them but they were incorporated right in the dying moments of the design phase. As a result, they were attached to the top of the spacecraft. The engineers believed that it will work but the seismometers of the Vikings failed to deliver as they were disabled due to different reasons. He said,

That was a real disappointment for everyone,” Banerdt said. “I was a summer intern at JPL doing the Viking landing; that was my favorite instrument, but I wasn’t involved in it.

He also mentioned that the InSight Mission will carry a seismometer which will be placed on the surface of the Red Planet in order to detect all the Marsquakes and meteor strikes. This will also help the researchers to get some insight about the interior of the Mars.

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