Search This Blog

The Economics of Climate Change

The Jevons Effect, the Khazzoom–Brookes Postulate and Recent IEA Assumptions – Is it time to Rewrite Economic Theory or Face Reality?   In...

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Vikings were Amongst the First on Mars

The Vikings of Yesteryear

There are several hypotheses relating to the origin of the word "Viking". It is an ancient word as it appears on Rune stones which are contemporaneous with the Viking age. Like words in other languages, its meaning and use have evolved over the centuries. Ancient Runic inscriptions suggest that a Viking was a man who left his homeland to seek adventure and profit elsewhere (Runic is an  ancient alphabet script, also called futhark, used to write various Germanic languages before the adoption of the Latin alphabet). 

There was also an expectation that the Viking would return to his home with fortunes that had been amassed during these travels. However this is not the exclusive definition of the word.  Some language scholars propose that the word originates from the word "vik"" which means "creek" or "bay" with a "Vikingr" being "King of the creek''. or "King of the bay". Other researchers of the subject contend that to be a Viking also required  participation in acts of plunder, pillage and terror.  Viking warriors were reputed to be fierce, trained in archery, spear-throwing and swordplay from the young age of ten years. The most fanatical warriors were called "berserkers"

The "Viking Age"  really comes to prominence in the late 8th century.  Then, the  Kings of the bay started leaving their Scandinavian  homelands and using  the Norwegian and Baltic Sea to provide maritime access, raided and  traded across wide areas of Europe. They were facilitated by advanced sailing  techniques and navigational skills with their "longship" being a key enabler of their maritime voyages, at times to new lands across unchartered waters. 

The stamp above is from the Faroe Islands show the route of the Vikings out of their homelands to new frontiers. 

The stamp above is from the island of Jersey and is a good representation of a Viking longship.

One of the pivotal moments in their history occurs when  a group of Viking  armed raiders attack the defenceless monastery of St. Cuthbert in Lindisfarne, on the coast of Northumbria, England in 793 AD.   This was the first Viking invasion of England. At the time, present day England comprised four separate and independent kingdoms which were East Anglia, Wessex, Northumbria and Mercia. Mercia was the strongest in military might.  

Led by the brothers, Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless, the Vikings  picked off the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England one by one until only the kingdom of Wessex remained, unconquered. Wessex  was ruled by King Alfred. 

Alfred was a king by default as his older brothers had died from sickness or in prior Viking battles. In January 878 AD, Alfred was caught by surprise in a Chippenham estate by the army of Guthrum but he escaped, regrouped and a little later, returned to defeat the Vikings at Edington, a small village in Wiltshire. For this achievement in saving his kingdom, he is the only native English ruler to be given the title "the Great". So, until today, he is acclaimed  as King Alfred the Great.

For nearly a century England was controlled by the Vikings in the Midlands and the North whilst the Kings of Wessex ruled in the South and South-west. It was only in 954 AD that the King of Wessex expelled the last Vikings and unified England under the House of Wessex. 

This First Day Cover below from the island of Jersey commemorates its Viking heritage.

As historians would later realize, it was not only the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that were targeted by the Vikings. Within a few years of their Lindisfarne attack, Viking raiding parties had struck in Scotland, Ireland and France. It is also estimated that the Vikings arrived in the Faroes in the mid 8th century, subsequently using this as a base to sail further west across the Atlantic. In addition, there are detailed historical records of the Vikings arriving in Iceland in the year 872 AD where they set up an independent society, owing no formal allegiance to the Kings of Norway. Many years later, in 1960 AD, strong evidence of Viking settlements were discovered in the northernmost tip of Newfoundland in Canada, demonstrating that there was already northern European discovery of the Americas many centuries before the legendary travels of Columbus.

The series of stamps above commemorate the Viking presence discovered in Canada.

Present Day Mariners and Vikings 

Seafarers, adventurers, mariners, warriors, settlers, explorers and innovators are just some of the many words that have been used to describe the historical Vikings. Thus, when Edgar Cortwright, a  scientist, engineer and senior NASA administrator was contemplating a concept to name inter-planetary missions to Mars, Mercury and Venus, he paralleled his thinking to the maritime world and this resulted in the selection of  "Mariner" and "Viking" as names for the American robotic craft that were going to "travel to great distances and remote lands" within our Solar System. 

The First Proposals 

The first credible technical study for a mission to Mars was made by Wernher von Braun between 1947 and the early 1950s. Von Braun, developer of the V-2 ballistic missiles that so terrorized Western Europe at the end of World War II but anointed the ''Father of Rocket Science" for his work on the Saturn V multi-stage rocket that took American astronauts to the moon,  was a reader of the works of Hermann Oberth, himself one of the founding fathers of rocketry and astronautics. Oberth was a disciple of the fictional works of Jules Verne, particularly the classics, "From Earth to the Moon" and "Around the Moon" so it is not difficult to understand the links that inspired this generation of physicists and engineers to dream of journeys to the celestial bodies that seemingly floated in the space high above our heads.

The Mars Race 

I will write about this period between the launch of the Sputnik 1 in 1957 and the Apollo-Soyuz Test project in 1975 in a further post. Many call this period "the Space Race". Within this Space Race, there were other "high-stakes" competitions ongoing simultaneously, on the ground, at sea, in the air and in space. During this period, which was the height of the "cold war", it was the sovereign  pride and military might of the two protagonists nations, the United States and the Soviet Union,  which were at stake. Commendable achievements in the conquest of space were critical in the claim for global political, technological and military leadership. 

Once the Soviet Union had sent robotic missions to orbit Earth,  it was only natural for targets further away to become the objective of the nation. Even before Yuri Gagarin had made his first orbit of the Earth in 1961, the Soviets were already planning for a robotic mission to other planets. By October 1960 they launched the "Marsnik 1" spacecraft for a flyby of Mars. Sadly for them, it was destroyed on take-off. Four days later, "Marsnik 2" suffered the same fate. 

In 1962, with the Americans busy emulating the Soviet achievement of putting a man into orbit (John Glenn orbited Earth in February 1962), two further robotic spacecraft were launched by the USSR. The second probe, named  "Mars 1" traveled more than 106 million kilometres from Earth before a technical  glitch caused ground control to loose communications with it.  Later in 1962, a third Soviet probe was launched, but to no avail. It also failed in Earth orbit. The obsession to achieve objectives quickly (and almost frantically) did not seem to be yielding the much sought-after national pride and international respect that was being domestically demanded.

It was only in 1964 that the Americans  joined the race to Mars. In November 1964, "Mariner 3" was launched but one hour after lift-off, the curse of the Mars probes struck and the mission failed. It was then the turn of  "Mariner 4" which was launched in November 1964. It  reached Mars in July 1965 and was deemed a success for its time as twenty-one  photographs of the Red Planet were relayed back to Earth.  

The stamps above commemorate the successful Viking flyby of Mars of Mariner 4

Two days after the American launch of Mariner 4, the Soviets launched  "Zond 2" which also targeted Mars. Unfortunately for the Soviets, Zond 2 made it to the Red Planet but at a critical stage of the mission, its radios failed and it was unable to send back any planetary data or images. So far away and yet so close, all at the same time!

On 25th February and 27th March 1969, NASA launched Mariner 6 and 7 respectively. They reached Mars in late July and early August the same year, sending back a total of 201 photographs of the equatorial and polar regions of  the planet. Given that the United States had only just landed humans on the moon, the USA closed the decade in the pole position of a two nation space race. 

Landing on Mars 

Once it was demonstrated that it was possible to reach Mars, the next objective was to aim for a successful soft landing of a robotic spacecraft  on the surface of the planet. Once again, the quest for global political and military leadership motivated the actions of the cold war actors. Between 1969 and 1971 several attempts to launch space vehicles to Mars were made by both the USA and USSR but both nations were thwarted. 

On 30th May 1971, the United States launched the robotic spacecraft, "Mariner 9" which successfully arrived and orbited Mars just weeks ahead of the Soviet twins of "Mars 2" and "Mars 3". After its first orbit, Mariner 9 became the first spacecraft to successfully circle another planet. Mariner 9 arrived at a time when severe dust storms enveloped the Red Planet. After patiently orbiting Mars for several months, it relayed back to Earth more than 7300 clear photographs, covering approximately 85 percent of the Red Planet. These photographs captured high altitude volcanoes, riverbeds, long networks of canyons (one, even  more than 4,000 kilometres long) and the small Martian moons of Phobos and Deimos. Most spectacularly, the largest known volcano in the Solar System (Olympus Mons) was photographed. 

Mars 2 and Mars 3

Mars 2 and Mars 3 were twin robotic spacecrafts launched by the Soviet Union nine days apart with the objective of being the first probes to land on the Martian surface. Mars 2 was launched on 19 May 1971 whilst Mars 3 followed nine days later. Both spacecraft successfully orbited the Red Planet but the lander deployed by the Mars 2 spacecraft to touch down on the planet, crashed on the surface of Mars. The same was not true of the lander deployed by Mars 3. It successfully soft-landed on the planet but the lander failed  technically some fifteen seconds after landing. In that short time, it  relayed one image from the planet's surface which was not well defined. Notwithstanding the failure, this event is still recorded as the first controlled landing of a spacecraft on Mars.

Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Vikings

Like the Russian Mars 2 and Mars 3 spacecrafts, the design configuration of the Viking robotic probe combined  an orbiter with a lander module, with the lander being deployed for touch down after arrival at the planet. At that stage, the orbiter would be applied for remote areal imaging and also used to relay data back to Earth. 

Viking 1 was launched in August 1975. It was planned for a landing on Mars on 4th July 1976 in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the American Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately things did not proceed as planned as areal images of the primary landing site, received from the orbiter,  showed that the selected terrain was too rough for a safe landing. Consequently, the descent was delayed until 20th July 1976 (the seventh anniversary of the American moon landing). On that day, the lander deployed by the Viking 1 orbiter became the second spacecraft to soft-land on Mars and almost immediately commenced relaying clear images of the planet back to Earth. The Viking 1 lander (later renamed the Thomas Mutch Memorial Station) operated for 2307 days (over 6.25 years or 2245 sols; i.e. Martian solar days). 

The series of stamps above: These are from the island of Nevis and they commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Viking 1 landing on Mars on 20th July 1976.

The eventual fate of the Viking 1 orbiter is not explicitly known. When operations were terminated in August 1980, it had already made 1485 orbits around the planet and relayed back more than 57,000 images. A study in 2009  concluded that whilst it may have crashed onto the Martian surface, it was more likely to be still in orbit around the planet. 

This stamp is from the Central African Republic and it commemorates the landing on the moon (July 1969) and the landing on Mars by the Viking 1 Lander (July 1976).

A month after the successful touch down by the Viking 1 lander on the Mars surface, the lander deployed by the Viking 2 orbiter also successfully soft-landed. The Viking 2 lander  operated on the surface of Mars for 1316 days or 1281 sols (i.e. until 12 April 1980) whilst the orbiter remained functional until 25 July 1978, returning more than 16,000 images while orbiting the planet more than 700 times.

The stamp above: There were several failures and problems encountered during the many attempts to successfully land a robotic spacecraft onto the surface of Mars. This stamp, from the Central African Republic honours those who were in the front-line of spacecraft operations and suffered success and failure. 

This is another stamp from the Central African Republic commemorates the landing on the moon (July 1969)  and the landing on Mars by the Viking 1 Lander (July 1976).

The Lessons

In retrospect, the stories and statistics above, many of them representing major and expensive failures, may seem inconsequential after all these years. But I am certain that at the time, there were many tears. To me, these failures demonstrate the vision and single-minded perseverance of leaders, engineers, scientists and patriots to build a deep platform of knowledge and understanding of our universe, and our role and place within it. From Galileo to Newton, from Einstein to Lemaitre, from Hubble to Hawking and even Oberth, Korolev and von Braun and many others who turned theoretical dreams into a practical reality, they understood that not all questions could be answered from the planet and place that we inhabit. For some answers, we needed to move our frame of reference. 

The quest of the Vikings of Scandinavia, when exploring, conquering and pillaging far away lands may have been driven by economic necessity or personal greed but unequivocally, they were explorers and innovators, led by the overhead stars into the maritime unknown. 

History has recorded that the Viking Age lasted about three hundred years and that they reached the shores of NewFoundland in Canada. I wonder; the Space Age has only had a life of sixty-five years. Already, we have landed robots and rovers on Mars several times and we now are contemplating a manned mission in the next decade. Other probes like the Voyager 1 and 2, launched in 1977, are leaving the Solar System after decades of exploration in space. In fact, in 2012, data received from Voyager 1 indicated that it had become the first man-made object to enter inter-stellar space. In 2019, similar data was received from Voyager 2. 

When I look at the stars each night, I wonder where we will all be after 300 years of space exploration? How will the Space Age have rewarded our quest for knowledge and understanding? What will we find? And what will be recorded in the digitized history books, holograms and blog posts of tomorrow?

This stamp is issued by the island of Pulau and it commemorates the Mars Pathfinder mission.

End of blog post.

Note: All stamps and the First Day Cover are from my personal collection.

1 comment:

  1. Another brilliantly written article! I like the historical analysis leading to the naming of the missions, and while Jules Verne was fiction ahead of his time, mankind actually realised the dream. The line that we need to frame our reference is particularly perceptive. With all that is taking place today, what augurs for tomorrow will be key. We can only hope that it's for the better and that money and tears aside, our achievements in space exploration bear meaningful lessons and rewards. Wonderful work, Ken.