The Viking Program

Account for the Mission

The Viking program was a well-known space operation which was conducted by NASA. It involved launching a pair of space crafts to Mars. The launch was done to discover more about the red planet and its ability to sustain life (Encrenaz et al., 2004). The project grossed over a total of 1 billion U.S dollars, but it was worth the money since a significant amount of insight was collected concerning the red planet.

The mission itself involved launching of two space crafts dubbed Viking 1 and Viking 2. The space probes were not launched on the same day since the scientists at NASA used the first launch as an experiment to test the waters (Encrenaz et al., 2004). In essence, Viking 1 was launched on August 20th the year 1975 while the second probe (Viking 2) was launched on September 9th,1975. All the probes had similar properties; the only real disparity existed due to launch times and landing points.

Each spacecraft consisted of two major parts; these were the orbiter and the lander. The orbiter, as the name suggests was primarily designed to take photographs of the red planet from orbit. The photographs were hence aerial (Encrenaz et al., 2004). It had an overall mass of about 2330 kilogram while including fuel. The orbiters were equipped with 1.6 X 1.2 solar panels which were implanted as pairs on both wings. Each of the panels had about 34,800 solar cells which formed a credible power source as the orbiters revolved around the planet. The net energy produced regarding the sunlight intensity was 620W. It is important to note that the production capacity would have been much higher on a planet which is much closer to the sun (Launius, 2004). In addition to the solar power, the orbiters were fitted with nickel-cadmium batteries each of 30 A-h capacities. The connection formed an excellent source of energy for the orbiters. As already stated above, their primary role was to collect information from the planet via satellite imaging. The orbiters also communicated with the landers and processed the information which was sent their way.

Both the orbiters and the landers were launched as one spacecraft. Research indicates that the total mass at launch was about 2328 kilograms. Out of the total mass, about 1447 kg was propellant fuel and altitude control gas (Launius, 2004). This shows that the probes needed an intense amount of firepower to drive their journey across the solar system. Independently, the orbiter weighed roughly 600 kg and the lander 900 kilograms. The total weight at launch according to insight is close to 2.3 tones; this can be likened to the weight of 2 elephants (Pillet et al., 2005). Mars is such a long way off that the two spacecraft took close to a year to reach the surface. The Viking 1, which was launched first, reached Mars on June 19th, 1976 and the second arrived on August 7th, 1976.

The landers were characterized by a hexagonal aluminum base which was supported by three protruding legs. The measuring equipment and satellite links were attached on top of the base. The hardware included photography machines and also some testers which were used to determine the properties of the surroundings (Pillet, et al., 2005). The landers were reported to be excessively sterilized prior to launch which meant that they could not be affected by the organisms which could be found on the surface of the planet. The equipment was also readily offered protection against adverse weather conditions (Shearer, 2003). The sterilization was as follows; each lander was enclosed in a pressurized chamber which is referred to as the “biofield.” The equipment went on to be heated at a temperature of about 111 degrees for 40 hours.

The most crucial phase of the entire operation was the descent into the planet. Each lander was released into the atmosphere by the orbiters, and hence they began descending into the planet’s atmosphere (Launius, 2004). The de-orbital burn was the first stage of this descent which was followed by the atmospheric entry. The atmospheric entry stage is characterized by an intense amount of heat which is generated as a result of heating from the air molecules. A parachute was deployed to help reduce the speed of descent together with rockets which guided the lander until it gently touched the atmosphere. It is important to note that complete Vikings (both landers and orbiters) revolved around the planet for a predefined amount of time, this was so that the surface could be analyzed carefully and the safest region be selected for landing (Launius, 2004). Mars is characterized by valleys seas, and such hence the entire mission could be jeopardized if the lander managed to mount to an area where collective study could not be done. Such a pre-orbit was hence crucial for this purpose.

Following the safe and successful landing of the probes, accurate observation could hence be commenced on the planet (Shearer, 2003). The landers collected soil samples and tested their various properties while the orbiters continued to circulate the planet and observe the atmosphere. This observation was crucial to determine the weather pattern which presided on the planet.


The overall projected demanded a significant degree of financial support and resources. It was still riddled with uncertainty on whether or not it would reach the planet. The probe managed to reach the surface against all the odds hence all doubts were cleared (Shearer, 2003). The area where Viking 1 landed was however not safe and unconducive. According to the landing surface data which was collected by the team on July 20, 1976, the probe had landed on an area which is characterized by steep slopes and rough terrain.

The altitudes of these valleys were unknown hence in the event that the landers fell, they could suffer a significant amount of damage. Speculations even stated that the high-altitude area could be a volcano hence the equipment could be on the verge of destruction while at the surface. To this effect, the landing coordinates of the second probe were shifted to a much more planer and more conducive environment (Launius, 2004). This was thanks to the satellite imaging of the orbiter which scanned for a more favorable landing spot before releasing the second probe. It had been previously agreed upon that the two instruments (orbiter and lander) would last up to 90 days which would bring the project to a close, contrary to this belief, the two devices lasted four years.


Before moving on to discuss the significance of the mission and how it has positively impacted our lives, it is important to learn about the goals, i.e., why the Vikings were sent there in the first place. The Viking space probes were sent to acquire high resolution and quality images of the surface of the planet. The orbiters were mainly involved with this specific objective.

The Vikings were also sent to analyze and to characterize the structure a composition of the planet’s surface and atmosphere (Launius, 2004). It is important to note that both the landers and the orbiters shared in this objective, although the lander could take photographs of the planet’s surface and also analyze soil samples while the orbiter was only reduced to taking photographs of the atmosphere and satellite communication (Launius, 2004). Finally, the most crucial objective which formed a significant part of the mission at hand was to search for evidence of life on Mars. Such a discovery once made may help us to determine whether or not the planet can support human life and the possibility of starting a whole new human civilization there. In the event that the planet’s resources become depleted over time, life can be transferred to the planet which is characterized by a large degree of untapped resources.

The overall project was a success which was evidenced by the significant degree of findings which were made. The following are examples of such findings and their overall contribution to our knowledge on matters which are outside our solar system (Launius, 2004). Such an experiment was coherently planned, and the benefits were eventually reaped. 


The surface of Mars is characterized by many geological landforms. These are very similar to the ones which are located on the surface of the earth such as volcanic mountains, valleys and so forth. Majority of these geological features were formed as a result of water-based activities. It is said that these particular findings caused a massive revolution on the idea that there was water on Mars, the possibilities of it supporting life were indeed many.

Features such as river valleys showcased the presence of large enough floods which broke from areas of barricade or concealment (Launius, 2004). Mountainous landforms which were discovered to be significant parts of the landform were also created in various ways. The craters which were found on the surface were believed to have been formed by impacts from objects such as meteorites and so on. Further research indicated that the craters resembled that which was to form if a meteorite fell in an area with soft soil or mud (Launius, 2004). This finding further strengthened the belief of the availability of water on the surface of the planet. In addition to this finding and general idea, vast terrains were seen of places with seemingly large amounts of water in the past but lost due to some unknown reason. As a result, deeply cut trenches could be seen on the surface of the planet. Such a trench is what is most likely to be considered in the event that a river dries up during the dry season. These deeply cut channels were given the name, “Chaotic Terrain.” The term chaotic is used since it is widely believed that the area lost large amounts of water at a concise amount of time (Launius, 2004). Evidence of underground volcanism was also sighted and concluded to be the primary source of water for the planet. The molten material/lava is believed to be responsible for melting the ice and hence by doing so, forming the large pool of water which would eventually seep to the surface (Shearer, 2003). It is also presumed that underground volcanicity developed cracks on the land similar to a way an earthquake does. The cracks may have further intensified and hence leading to collapse of the ground thus the disappearance of the rivers/water channels. The possibility of life on Mars became a reality also.

Influence of Understanding on Solar System

As already mentioned above the findings showed without a doubt that there is the presence of water on the planet. Scientists have thus been able to conclude that the planets in the solar system have the same types of elements on their surfaces. Since water is a compound formed from Hydrogen and Oxygen, this led to the knowledge that there is the possibility of life in outside planets. The findings also revealed that UV intensity on the surface of Mars was much more than that found on the earth (Shearer, 2003). This hence concluded that the amount of solar radiation on a specific planet is not only dependent on the distance from the sun, but also on a significant number of factors. The common belief was that planets further away from the sun are characterized with less temperature due to the increase of distance from the sun, this was however proved to be wrong based on the studies (Shearer, 2003). Finally, the study of the soil revealed that there is indeed life on earth, the soil showed acute oxidation properties hence confirming that the planet was indeed characterized by living organisms. This hence changed the typical conventional understanding the earth alone was capable of supporting life.


Encrenaz, T., Bibring., Blanc, M., Barucci., Roques, F. & Zarka, P. (2004). The Solar System. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Launius, R. (2004). Frontiers of space exploration. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.

Pillet, V., Aparicio, A. & Sánchez, F. (2005). Payload and mission definition in space sciences. Cambridge, UK New York: Cambridge University Press.

Shearer, D. (2003). Space missions. Mankato, Minn: Bridgestone

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