Launch: August 20, 1975 (Viking 1); September 9, 1975 (Viking 2)
Arrival: June 19, 1976 (Viking 1); August 7, 1976 (Viking 2)
Landing: July 20, 1976 (Viking 1); September 3, 1976 (Viking 2)
Mass: 576 kilograms (1,270 pounds)
Science instruments: Biology instrument, gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer, X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, seismometer, meteorology instrument, stereo color cameras, physical and magnetic properties of soil, aerodynamic properties and composition of Martian atmosphere with changes in altitude
NASA's Viking Project found a place in history when it became the first U.S. mission to land a spacecraft safely on the surface of Mars and return images of the surface. Two identical spacecraft, each consisting of a lander and an orbiter, were built. Each orbiter-lander pair flew together and entered Mars orbit; the landers then separated and descended to the planet's surface.
The Viking 1 lander touched down on the western slope of Chryse Planitia (the Plains of Gold), while the Viking 2 lander settled down at Utopia Planitia.
Besides taking photographs and collecting other science data on the Martian surface, the two landers conducted three biology experiments designed to look for possible signs of life. These experiments discovered unexpected and enigmatic chemical activity in the Martian soil, but provided no clear evidence for the presence of living microorganisms in soil near the landing sites. According to scientists, Mars is self-sterilizing. They believe the combination of solar ultraviolet radiation that saturates the surface, the extreme dryness of the soil and the oxidizing nature of the soil chemistry prevent the formation of living organisms in the Martian soil.
The Viking mission was planned to continue for 90 days after landing. Each orbiter and lander operated far beyond its design lifetime. Viking Orbiter 1 continued for four years and 1,489 orbits of Mars, concluding its mission August 7, 1980, while Viking Orbiter 2 functioned until July 25, 1978. Because of the variations in available sunlight, both landers were powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators -- devices that create electricity from heat given off by the natural decay of plutonium. That power source allowed long-term science investigations that otherwise would not have been possible. Viking Lander 1 made its final transmission to Earth November 11, 1982. The last data from Viking Lander 2 arrived at Earth on April 11, 1980.