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1976: Pictures of Mars from Viking ship

America's Viking I space-craft has landed on Mars and beamed back to Earth the first photographs of its surface.

US President Gerald Ford has proclaimed 20 July Space Exploration Day, as it was on this day seven years ago man first walked on the Moon.

British astronomer Patrick Moore has described it as "one of the most exciting days in the whole story of mankind".

The first photograph - received in the control centre in Pasadena, California at 1155 GMT - showed one of Viking's three footpads on a rock-strewn surface.

Later pictures revealed a landscape like American or Australian deserts, with a brightly illuminated sky, very different from images of the Moon.

"This is just an incredible scene"

Dr Thomas Mutch

Head of the Viking surface photography team Dr Thomas Mutch said: "This is just an incredible scene. It looks safe and very interesting."

The 10-foot-wide robotic lander touched down at 1112 GMT and began taking photographs 25 seconds later.

Viking I began its 200 million mile unmanned journey to Mars 11 months ago and the project team has been looking for a suitable place to land for the last two weeks.

They decided on Chryse Plantia - about 2.4 degrees north and 47.5 degrees west - as a relatively smooth and flat surface.

After receiving commands from the control centre it took the $153 million landing craft over three hours to detach itself - by small explosions and springs - from the mother-ship and reach the surface of the Red Planet, 12,600 miles below.

The larger space-craft will remain in orbit, relaying radio messages between Earth and the lander and taking aerial photographs of Mars.

The lander is expected to take photographs of the planet until November and it has been fitted with a long mechanical arm to collect soil for biological and chemical analysis later.

A Soviet Union landing on Mars in 1971 failed to transmit any useful data.

Data from the Martian mission will provide scientists with evidence of the nitrogen, carbon and water necessary to sustain life as we know it.

In Context
In 40 years of space exploration, only the Moon has attracted more attention than Mars.

Only a third of the 30 missions up to 2002 were successful.

Two American attempts to reach the planet in 1999 failed through inadequate testing and confusion over measurements.

In October 2001 the US sent unmanned satellite Mars Odyssey into the planet's orbit to carry out chemical and mineralogical surveys from January 2002 to July 2004.

In June 2002 NASA reported that data from the Mars Odyssey indicated the presence of water.

The most detailed pictures of the Red Planet were relayed back to Earth in January 2004 from NASA's Spirit rover which had survived a seven-month voyage from Earth. /CPS:BOX>

Web Links
Mars Express website
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