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Mars Pathfinder transmits dramatic color images


NASA terms landing 'way beyond our expectations'

July 5, 1997
Web posted at: 4:52 a.m. EDT (0852 GMT)

PASADENA, California (CNN) -- The Mars Pathfinder space probe sent back the first panoramic color images of the desolate, rock-strewn surface of Mars Friday evening.

The first red-tinged views of the planet from Pathfinder, perched amidst the rocky Martian floor, were released by NASA about 9:35 p.m. EDT (0135 GMT) -- less than nine hours after the spacecraft made a landing that one NASA scientist described as "way beyond our expectations."

Pathfinder image gallery

The first stream of black-and-white pictures, a series of shots taken around the edges of the spacecraft, started coming into NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California about 7:35 p.m. EDT (2335 GMT).

Throughout the day, with each encouraging development, people in the Pasadena control room cheered and hugged each other.

"We know we're down, and we know we're healthy," said Brian Muirhead, flight systems manager at JPL. "This is way beyond our expectations. The whole day has just been extraordinary."

Rover's rovings delayed


However, the picture perfect start to Pathfinder's mission soon developed a blemish when a pair of problems cropped up with the planned deployment of Soujourner -- the mission's planetary rover and star performer.

"We wanted to deploy the rover on the first day of the mission, but if it's the second day or the third day, it's not a problem," said Donna Shirley, the Pathfinder project manager.

Images revealed that one of the air bags used to cushion the spacecraft's crash-landing onto the Martian surface blocked extension of a ramp down which engineers planned to send Sojourner. But NASA's steady group of planetary explorers took the anomaly in stride, putting Pathfinder through a series of maneuvers that pulled the deflated air bags out of harm's way.

More significantly, mission managers reported that Soujourner and Pathfinder were having difficulty communicating via their radio link. NASA officials said at a press conference late Friday that transmissions between the two vehicles were garbled. Failure to solve the problem would render the mission's centerpiece useless.

Project officials, including rover manager Jake Matijevic, remained up beat in the face of their first real long-distance fix-it test.

"We have every confidence that we'll find a way to fix this problem," Matijevic said.

Landing ends two-decade lull in Mars exploration


The probe landed in a rough, rocky flood plain called Ares Vallis about 1:07 p.m. EDT (1707 GMT), ending a 21-year lull in Mars exploration. The last time a spacecraft from Earth landed on Mars was in 1976.

JPL scientists had expected it could take two hours or more after the landing before they would be able to receive signals from Pathfinder, indicating it had survived intact. But to their surprise, Pathfinder kept sending signals almost continuously, allowing NASA to declare the landing a success within three minutes.

Buffeted by a series of air bags that inflated just before landing, Pathfinder crash-landed onto Mars and bounced to a stop. Early data indicated the craft bounced at least three times, with the first bounce throwing the craft about 15 meters (50 feet) up into the Martian atmosphere.

If the four-sided probe had landed on the wrong side, Pathfinder had the capability to right itself. But in a sign of just how well the landing went, it actually came to a stop right side up, tilted only about two degrees from a perfectly level landing.

That nearly ideal landing was what put the spacecraft's antenna in correct position to maintain virtually continuous communication with Earth, according to Rob Manning, flight systems chief engineer.

"The little engine that could, did," he said. "We couldn't be happier."

After hurtling through millions of miles of space since its December launch, Pathfinder arrived on Mars less than a second from its projected landing time. It landed about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the center of the elliptical zone on the surface where the NASA team had been aiming.

The first streams of data showed that the atmosphere of Mars was somewhat thinner than expected. The temperature of -63 degrees Fahrenheit (-53 degrees Celsius) was also about 20 degrees warmer than the temperature recorded during earlier Mars probes.

Vice president offers country's congratulations

NASA officials in Pasadena received a congratulatory phone call from Vice President Al Gore shortly after the data began to flow back to Earth.

"The whole country is just very proud of what you all are doing and have done today," Gore said. "What a great way to celebrate America's birthday and celebrate our country's know-how and ingenuity as we press forward to new heights and new frontiers."

Friday is the patriotic Independence Day holiday in the United States, the 221st anniversary of the country's founding.

Data-gathering aimed at future trips

The primary focus of the Pathfinder mission is to gather data about what kinds of technology will be needed in designing future Mars probes, which scientists hope may lead to a manned mission by 2012.

Sojourner will analyze the Martian surface to determine the chemical composition of its features. Other experiments will explore the feasibility of using solar energy to turn Mars' atmosphere into rocket fuel, a process that may prove necessary if spacecraft are ever to fly from Mars back to Earth.

Both the main landing craft and Sojourner have cameras on board to beam back detailed images of the planet's features.

The mission is designed to last a month before the solar-powered Pathfinder reaches the end of its life. But scientists hope the landing craft and rover will outperform their scheduled life span.

Pathfinder is not designed to answer the provocative question of whether life once existed on Mars, because it will not be returning to Earth with the soil or rock samples that would be needed for a definitive answer.

But the data collected on this mission could provide new clues to the answer, as well as giving scientists the information they need for future missions that could offer definite proof of Martian life.

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