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Mars Rovers’ “Ancestor” Celebrates 35 Years

August 20, 1975: A Titan 3/Centaur rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying the Viking 1 spacecraft, the first NASA mission to put a lander on Mars.

Moments after touchdown on July 20, 1976, Viking 1 sent the first-ever picture taken from the surface of the red planet:

mars-viking-first-shot.jpg

A portrait of the artist as a young robot.

—Image courtesy NASA/JPL

Part of the lander’s footpad is visible at bottom right. For a sense of scale, the pyramid-looking rock to the left is about four inches (ten centimeters) wide.

The Viking 1 craft was actually a combo package of lander plus orbiter, and—like the exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity—the bundle had a twin: Viking 2 launched September 9, 1975, and arrived at Mars on August 7, 1976.

As a team, the Viking probes offered us humans the most complete picture of Mars to date, mapping the entire planet from space at high resolution (492 to 984 feet, or 150 to 300 meters) and compiling more than 1,400 surface images of rocky terrain, dust storms, and seasonal ice cover.

(Last month officials with NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter released what they call the best Mars map yet, culling more than 21,000 pictures to create an interactive, zoomable tool showing detail down to 330-foot [100-meter] resolution.)

Unlike the twin rovers, however, the two Viking landers were both stationary.

Viking 1 hung out on Chryse Planitia, aka the “Golden Plain,” a flat, rolling lowland in Mars’s northern hemisphere. The circular plain may have been an ancient impact basin, and outflow channels along its edges suggest it once held a large lake.

Pictures from Viking 1 revealed that the smooth-looking plain is actually strewn with small boulders—see, for example, this shot of the region taken just before sunset on August 21, 1976:

mars-viking-color.jpg

—Image courtesy NASA/JPL

Meanwhile, Viking 2 touched down at Utopia Planitia (site of a future Starfleet shipyard). This vast lava plain is also on Mars’s northern hemisphere but pretty much on the opposite side of the planet.

Sadly, every mission to Mars so far has been a one-way trip. Both Viking landers stopped communications in the early 1980s. But they’re still there, quietly waiting on the Martian surface for future explorers to make pilgrimages and build visitor centers nearby.

The look-back at the Viking program may be foreshadowing for at least one Mars rover: Poor Spirit, lodged in a crater full of soft sand, stopped communicating earlier this month, and mission managers fear the long-lived bot may get too cold to survive the oncoming Martian winter.