Space Exploration Chronology: 1970-1979 | Space Stations: Salyut 1, Skylab | Viking On Mars | Pioneer 11 Anomaly | Extraterrestrial signal

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Soviet Space Program's Salyut 1.
First space station, first tragedy in space.

Mission launched April 19, 1971
Destination reached April 19, 1971
Objectives Test basic conditions on a space station and conduct experiments.
Results First crew that attempted to dock with the space station failed to do so. Second screw successfully inhabited the space station, conducting experiments for almost 24 days. Problem with a hatch in the return vehicle depressurized the cabin, suffocating all three astronauts. Their names were: Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev, Vladislav Volkov. This led to enhancement of the Soyus spacecraft design, allowing astronauts to constantly have their pressurized space suits on. The three perished astronauts proved that a space station can be operated by the crew on board and paved way to all future artificial habitats in space.

Soyuz spacecraft (left) docked with Salyut-1 space station (right)

Tribute, by WhiteJarrah on YouTube, to the fallen trailblazers of the cosmic vastness.

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Skylab: First American Space Station

Credit: Courtesy of NASA/
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Mission launched May 14, 1973
Deorbited July 11, 1979
Objectives Skylab program objectives were twofold: To prove that humans could live and work in space for extended periods, and to expand our knowledge of solar astronomy well beyond Earth-based observations.
Results Three, three-man crews occupied the Skylab workshop for a total of 171 days and 13 hours. It was the site of nearly 300 scientific and technical experiments, including medical experiments on humans' adaptability to zero gravity, solar experiments and detailed Earth resources experiments. (3)

Skylab space station utilized all primary equipment from the Apollo Moon program. It was launched unmanned by gigantic Saturn V rocket. Astronauts arrived on Apollo command modules, the same class of spacecraft that was used to get to the Moon. Three crews SLM-1, SLM-2, SLM-3 conducted scientific experiments and tested effects of prolonged stay in space on human physiology.

Credit: Courtesy of NASA/

The effectiveness of Skylab crews exceeded expectations, especially in their ability to perform complex repair tasks. They demonstrated excellent mobility, both internal and external to the space station -- showing humans to be a positive asset in conducting research from space. By selecting and photographing targets of opportunity on the sun, and by evaluating weather conditions on Earth and recommending Earth resources opportunities, crews were instrumental in attaining high-quality solar and Earth oriented data. Three three-man crews occupied the Skylab workshop for a total of 171 days, 13 hours.

Credit: Courtesy of NASA/

Originally Skylab was planned to be a more ambitious enterprise, comprosing launching a second space station, which is now at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and to boost the original Skylab into a higher orbit to prolong its operations. There were also proposals to use the Space Shuttle, which was in its infancy, to boost and refurbish Skylab. These plans were abandoned in favor of appropriating more funds for the Space Shuttle program which was experiencing delays. Eventually, it was decided that with the Space Shuttle operational, it would make a separate space station redundant.

Click here to read more about Skylab

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NASA's Viking program reveals Mars for the first time

Credit: Courtesy of NASA/
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Mission launched Viking 1: August 20, 1975
Viking 2: September 9, 1975
Destination reached Viking 1 orbiter: June 19, 1976
Viking 1 lander: July 20, 1976

Viking 2 orbiter: August 7, 1976
Viking 2 lander: September 3, 1976
Objectives Map Martian surface using Viking orbiters, taking high resolution images. Establish whether or not there is life on Mars and take photographic images of the surface from Viking landers.
Results 97% of Martian surface was mapped. Composition of the atmosphere measured. No life detected on the surface of Mars. Mission lasted in a limited capacity till 1982.

The Viking program was as symbolic as it was scientific. For centuries, Mankind gazed upon the Red Planet, wondering if anyone is looking back. Viking landers took panoramic, detailed images of their surroundings, they samples the soil for organic contents and discovered no evidence of life. Mars turned out to be a cold, lifeless desert. Future studies of Martian surface provided by the Viking orbiters gave first evidence of an ancient presence of liquid water on the surface.

One of the images taken by Viking orbiters of the Martian surface
Credit: Courtesy of NASA/
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NASA had finally unveiled a cloud of mystery that surrounded Mars for as long as Human beings observed it. Up until this mission, there was wide speculation about how abundant life could be on Mars, proving it wrong paved way for new theories of what kind of life, and where, could still exist on Mars.

The mission turned out to be a great success, providing immense amount of data to be studied over the course of the next two decades. It continues to stand out as the most expensive Martian exploration mission, in part due to the geographic precision landing that was achieved with a thrust from rocket engine. Future missions would utilize a different, much cheaper, approach.

Carl Sagan standing next to a mockup of a Viking lander
Credit: Courtesy of NASA/
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One of the surface images obtained through a Viking orbiter gained wide popularity over a controversial terrain feature that appeared to look like a face. Despite scientific explanations that it was nothing more than a natural feature, multiple conspiracy theories had already emerged and as is often the case with space exploration they ovarshadowed scientific aspect of the mission. Hollywood took advantage of the interest that the alleged face generated and came out with a Science Fiction movie Mission to Mars in 2000 that prominently featured a gigantic martian face.

Click on the original Mars face image to view a more detailed image of the same site (Cydonia) made in 1998. Scientific consensus stresses that it is an ordinary natural hill.

Credit: Courtesy of NASA/

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Possible artificial extraterrestrial signal detected

Credit: The Ohio State University Radio Observatory and the North American AstroPhysical Observatory (NAAPO).

Arguably the most compelling evidence of an extraterrestrial life is a radio signal received by an American astronomer Jerry R. Ehman on August 15, 1977. He was working for the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), which exists specifically for the purpose of seeking out artificial-intelligent signals coming from outer space. When Dr.Ehman studied the printout of the recorded data, he immediately recognized significanec of one transmission and wrote "Wow!" on the printout, which became a popular reference name for this event.
Big Ear radio telescope of The Ohio State University which was employed for the task could only register a signal for 72 seconds from a single source and was expected, in case of a signal of extratterstrial origin, to peak in the middle, corresponding, at which point it was expected to correspond to a frequency of 1420 which is a frequency at which Hydrogen resonates. The reason why there is a somewhat of a consensus among researchers in this field on listening at the Hydrogen frequency is because it is the most abundant element in the Universe, many civilization might use it as an interstellar frequency for communication. The registered signal met all these requirements at a remarkable precision.
No repeat of the signal was ever detected again, despite numerous attempts on ever more sophisticated equipment. Scientific community is, thus, presented with a dilemma: on one hand the evidence strongly suggests extraterrestrial, artificial signal, on the other, it has never been detected again. We may never learn of the signal's true origin, but it remains to be the best recorded evidence of an alien civilization. (2)
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Saturn is visited for the first time by an interplanetary probe Pioneer 11

Photograph of Saturn taken by Pioneer 11 in 1979
Credit: Courtesy of NASA/

Mission launched 5 April 1973
Destination reached Asteroid Belt: April 19, 1974
Jupiter: December 2, 1974
Saturn: August 26, 1979
Orbit of Pluto passed: 1990
Last signal received: November 30, 1995
Objectives Using 12 onboard instruments, continue studying the Solar System, in particular: the Asteroid belt, the Jovian system, the Saturnian system - which was to be visited for the first time in space exploration. The spacecraft was designed to conducted flyby observations, complimenting those made by Pioneer 10.

Scientific objectives were met with the following onboard instruments: Helium Vector Magnetometer (HVM), Quadrispherical Plasma Analyzer, Charged Particle Instrument (CPI), Cosmic Ray Telescope (CRT), Geiger Tube Telescope (GTT), Trapped Radiation Detector (TRD), Meteoroid Detectors, Asteroid/Meteoroid Detector (AMD), Ultraviolet Photometer, Imaging Photopolarimeter (IPP), Infrared Radiometer.

This wide variety of instruments was meant to enhance mankind's overall understanding of the Solar System which it, at that point, had just begun exploring.
Results Pioneer 11 succeeded in becoming the first probe to conduct direct observations of Saturn. It also accomplished important studied of energetic particles in the outer reaches of the heliosphere, a bubble surrounding the solar system created by the solar wind.

While at the heliocentric distances, that exist between 20 and 70 astronomical units, Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, both probes experienced an anomaly detection via detailed analyses of radio data: tiny acceleration towards the Sun. There is still no widely accepted explanation for this anomaly. Some of the possible explanations, as described by NASA scientists are: perturbations from the gravitational attraction of planets and smaller bodies in the solar system; radiation pressure, the tiny transfer of momentum when photons impact the spacecraft; general relativity; interactions between the solar wind and the spacecraft; possible corruption to the radio Doppler data; wobbles and other changes in Earth's rotation; outgassing or thermal radiation from the spacecraft; and the possible influence of non-ordinary or dark matter.

In pseudoscientific circles the Pioneer Anomaly is considered to be evidence of an undetected planet which is on a path to collide with Earth. This is incorrect. Select scientists proposed a separate mission to explore the Pioneer anomaly, which had to-date attracted little attention of NASA management.

Pioneer 11, along with Pioneer 10, was part of the original NASA program to explore the Solar System. Numerous first encounters are associated with these two probes. Pioneer 11 became the first human made probe to encounter Saturn. Pioneer 11 studied two outer planets, Jupiter and Saturn. It became an interstellar probe when it left the Saturnian system, which it continues without contact, after communication with the spacecraft was lost in 1995. Both of these probes carry an onboard a gold-anodized aluminum plaque for a possible extraterrestrial encounter.

Schematic of the last Pioneer probes 10, 11, 12.
Credit: Courtesy of NASA/

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  1. NASA: Viking Project Information
  2. SETI Institute: Interstellar Signal from the 70s Continues to Puzzle Researchers
  3. Skylab: America's first experimental space station
  4. List item 4 All Rights Reserved