Pathfinder to roam Mars in search of possible life
October 1, 1996
Web posted at: 10:40 p.m. EDT
From Correspondent John Zarrella
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- Did life ever exist on
Mars? Does it now? Tuesday was the final opportunity for
NASA scientists and engineers to get an up-close look at
Pathfinder, a robotic spacecraft that could start to unravel
Pathfinder is a first-of-its-kind robotic probe, which has
been programmed to land in an ancient Martian river delta on
July 4, 1997. The spacecraft alone is unlikely to provide
concrete answers to the life-on-Mars question. But NASA
scientists hope it will be a start.
"Obviously, we'll all be very excited to find further
evidence of life. This spacecraft isn't designed to do that,
but it is designed to tell us a lot of the geology,"
explained deputy operations manager Brian Muirhead.
When it lands, Pathfinder will open up like a flower
unfurling its petals, and a robotic rover will drive out onto
the planet's surface, gathering geological data about Mars.
There's a chance the rover might find rocks similar to the
Mars meteorite that was found on Earth -- the one that NASA
believes contains evidence that microscopic particles of life
once existed on Mars.
"We are carrying an instrument that will look at the
elemental composition of the rock. We would know whether
that rock is the same elementally as the rock that is in the
labs at Johnson Space Center," Muirhead said.
The rover is currently sitting on one of Pathfinder's petals,
in a clean room at the Kennedy Space Center.
The success of this mission depends to a large degree on the
clean room. NASA is going to tremendous lengths to keep the
spacecraft sterile because scientists want to make sure no
Earth germs end up on Mars.
Germs and other organisms from Earth would not likely hurt
Mars, but they might live and multiply. As a result, humans
exploring Mars years from now could find those germs left
behind by the Pathfinder mission -- and could draw the wrong
However, "At some point, we will want to contaminate Mars,
when man finally gets there and we can do some real
experiments looking for life," said Curt Cleven, NASA's
launch operations manager.
Pathfinder will be a major budgetary test for the space
agency. In the past, big-ticket planetary probes cost in more
than $1 billion. The Pathfinder project costs less than $200
million, which its managers say is proof that good planetary
science doesn't require an out-of-this-world expenditure.
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