We can’t believe it’s been 40 years since NASA’s Viking mission became the first to successfully land a spacecraft on Mars. It took us only slightly less time to get the Curiosity Rover up there so we could get a closer look at our planet.
However, most of the data is on microfilm rolls, which are rarely used and aren’t easily accessible to the public (except in some libraries). In the same way that Apollo 11's data has been digitized to increase accessibility, now a team at NASA is doing the same for the Viking mission.
David Williams, a planetary curation scientist that works at the NASA Space Science Data Coordinated Archive, received a call in the early 2000s that jumpstarted the task. Joseph Miller, a professor of pharmacology at American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine, requested information from the Viking mission to see if he could test for any signs of life on Mars (he did). Williams noted to NASA that he then recognized the importance of the data:
“I remember getting to hold the microfilm in my hand for the first time and thinking, ‘We did this incredible experiment and this is it, this is all that’s left,’” Williams said. “If something were to happen to it, we would lose it forever. I couldn’t just give someone the microfilm to borrow because that’s all there was.”
As the Curiosity Rover continues to send back data from the Red Planet, and as we prepare for the 2020 launch of a new rover, this data could become valuable once again. The original scientists analyzing the Viking biological data ascertained different results than Miller, who concluded in 2001 that the Mars soil could’ve contained the possibility for life.
Curiosity utilizes equipment known as Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), which specifically looks out for signs of organic compounds, and that was all based on the experiences with Viking. Digitizing data isn’t a foolproof way to make sure information isn’t lost over time, but it’s better to keep up with current forms of technology than to leave possibly eye-opening information where most can’t see it and where it could go obsolete.
“Viking data are still being utilized 40 years later,” said Danny Glavin, associate director for the Strategic Science in the Solar System Exploration Division. “I know the same will be true for SAM. The point is for the community to have access to this data so that scientists 50 years from now can go back and look at it.”