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Scientists giddy as Pathfinder nears Mars

Airbags used to cushion Pathfinder's landing

'We're all pretty confident'

July 1, 1997
Web posted at: 9:29 p.m. EDT (0129 GMT)

PASADENA, California (CNN) -- Just days before the Pathfinder spacecraft is scheduled to make its historic landing on Mars, the mission team says all systems are performing remarkably well.

"We're all actually pretty confident," says Richard Cook, one of the scientists. "Everything is going so smoothly on the spacecraft...."

During a briefing at the JPL lab in California, the usually reserved scientists were almost giddy over how smoothly the mission has gone so far.

Pathfinder's latest position puts it on course for a bulls-eye landing on July 4. It is headed for what the scientists believe is a relatively flat area containing small rocks close in age to the Martian meteorite found on Earth and believed to contain evidence of life on the red planet.

The saucer-like spacecraft will drop a landing module that resembles a three-sided clamshell. It is encased in oversized airbags that look like the bubble-pack wrapped around cameras and electronic components. With its series of rounded surfaces, the three-sided module resembles a complex molecule seen through a high-powered microscope.

Lander will hit Mars at 40 mph

First parachutes and then balloons will help brake the package during its 5-minute plunge through the thin Martian atmosphere. But when it strikes the surface it should still be falling 40 miles an hour.

It is expected to bounce several times before coming to rest. Once it stops, the bags will deflate and the clamshell casing will fold open, revealing a control box in the center that resembles a small television with an antenna.

Packed into one of the clamshell panels is the six-wheeled Sojourner rover, a rectangular yellow metal vehicle topped by a deck of solar panels. The rover is 25 inches long, 19 inches wide, 10 inches high and weighs 22 pounds.

The rover is the ultimate remote-controlled toy; its motor is so powerful the rover can climb an almost vertical surface.

It is also capable of sending out sensory beams and recording images that will be relayed to the control box and then back to Earth.

New technologies being tested

Neither the lander nor the rover are capable of detecting life by themselves, but they could help determine whether the necessary ingredients for life exist on the planet.

"It's the first step in a long-term Mars exploration program for looking at whether or not life could have started on our neighboring planet," said Matthew Golombek, the mission leader.

Much of this project is a test of new technologies -- 25 in all, according to the scientists. Under the circumstances, the scientists say, if the craft lands safely and sends back just one picture, they will consider the mission a success.

Their biggest concern is whether the airbags will adequately cushion the lander. If they don't, they'll have a space age Humpty Dumpty on their hands.

As Tony Spear, one member of the team, put it, "We'd be pretty bummed."

Correspondent John Zarrella contributed to this report.

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