Viking landed on Mars 40 years ago

The Virginia Gazette

According to a press release by NASA's Langley Research Center, on July 20, 2016, NASA will celebrate the 40th anniversary of a major event in the history of interplanetary space travel and the exploration of the planets: the world's first successful soft landing of an operating planetary probe on the surface of Mars.

On that day 40 years ago, the Viking Lander 1 successfully soft-landed, on the surface of Mars. On Sept. 3, 1976, the Viking Lander 2 did the same. Both crafts arrived with complex payloads of scientific instruments to investigate the atmosphere and surface of the red planet. This included three biology experiments to search for extant life on Mars. Forty years after the biology measurements that were obtained in 1976, they are still being investigated and analyzed. And the Viking-developed techniques for entry, descent and landing on Mars have been incorporated in every subsequent Mars soft-landing mission.

One of the main speakers at the symposium celebrating the 40-year anniversary of the Viking landing will be Dr. Joel Levine of Williamsburg. He spent 41 years at NASA, as Senior Research Scientist in the Science Directorate and served as a Mars Scout Program Scientist. He was also an investigator at NASA's Copernicus Orbiting Astronomical Observatory. Currently, Levine is research professor in the Department of Applied Sciences at the College of William & Mary.

As an investigator at the Copernicus Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, he developed numerical models of the upper atmosphere of Mars for the Viking Project scientist. Levine is also co-editor of the 976-page volume, "The Human Mission to Mars: Colonizing the Red Planet."

To describe the achievement of soft-landing a probe on Mars, Levine quotes Dr. Noel W. Hinners, the NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science during the Viking Mission. "All Mars missions in the 60s were properly viewed as incredibly challenging technically and scientifically. Soft-landing with life science experiments on a planet whose atmosphere, surface and environment were largely unknown was viewed as verging on insanity. And yet, Viking was an incredible scientific and engineering success."

Today, Levine, said, the U.S. is planning and developing the mission architecture and hardware -- the Space Launch System and the Orlan passenger capsule -- for a future soft-landing on Mars. The first human landing is scheduled for the mid-2030s.

"To a large extent, the Mars entry, descent and landing technology originally developed to soft-land the Viking Landers in 1976 will be utilized to safely land humans on Mars," Levine said.

He pointed out that the Viking landers obtained the world's first in situ measurements of the atmosphere and surface of Mars. The crafts carried atmospheric pressure and temperature instrumentation and an entry mass spectrometer for atmospheric composition and isotope measurements, as well as many other instruments. The results showed that Mars is a planet very different and much more complex than previously thought.

Viking showed that in its early history Mars was Earth-like with widespread and abundant surface liquid water in form of rivers, lakes and global-scale oceans. Early Mars had a thick atmosphere to support the presence of liquid water on its surface.

"It appears that over its history, Mars experienced catastrophic climate change," Levine said. "What caused this catastrophic climate change on Mars? Does it portend a warning for the future of our planet?

Those are questions that the July 20 symposium at NASA's Langley Research Center will attempt to answer.

More: The NASA Langley Viking Science Symposium on July 20 will be streamed world-wide in real time from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM EDT and may be viewed at the web site: http:/livestream.com/viewnow/viking40

Shatz, a Williamsburg resident, is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com

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