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Pathfinder to roam Mars in search of possible life

working 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 those mysteries.

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 conclusions.


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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