40 years ago, Viking 1 pioneered U.S. exploration on Mars

Mars landing site

Forty years ago, Viking 1 took this picture of its landing site (and footpad) on Mars, the first clear image from the surface of the Red Planet.

NASA, Roel van der Hoorn

Happy 40th anniversary, Viking 1! Four decades ago — July 20, 1976 — the robotic probe became the first U.S. mission to land on Mars. Its sister spacecraft, Viking 2, touched down 45 days later.

Launched August 20, 1975, Viking 1 spent over 6 years snapping pictures and studying the soil at its landing site, an ancient crater named Chryse Planitia. An experiment to look for Martian microbes turned up nothing definitive, though some researchers continue to argue otherwise.

Viking 1 wasn’t the first to successfully touch down on the Red Planet. That honor goes to the Soviet probe Mars 3, whichgently landed on Mars in 1971, though its only transmission — a partial, garbled image — lasted just 20 seconds.  

Today, seven probes actively call Mars home. A European-led orbiter and lander, ExoMars, is on its way, and NASA has two missions lined up: the Insight lander, whose launch was recently delayed to 2018, and the Mars 2020 rover, which will pick up where the Vikings left off and search for Martian life.

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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