Pathfinder speeds toward Martian surface
July 4, 1997
Web posted at: 9:35 a.m. EDT (1335 GMT)
(CNN) -- Mars Pathfinder hurtled toward the most dangerous
stage of its mission Friday: a supersonic parachute
deployment and a cushioned crash onto the surface of Mars.
The spacecraft, with its valuable cargo of the "Mars Buggy"
and its host module, is due to hit Martian soil at 1:07 p.m.
EDT (1707 GMT) on Friday in a patriotic American Independence
Day landing, just four minutes after slamming into the Red
Planet's atmosphere at 16,000 mph (25,740 kph).
The rover, named Sojourner, will begin its exploring less
than 11 hours after the landing. NASA, the U.S. space
agency, admits the timing of the landing on the U.S.
patriotic holiday did not happen by coincidence.
|Pathfinder marks a number of firsts:
First landing on a planet without orbiting it
First time a remote-controlled buggy has rolled across the surface of another planet
First time a parachute has been deployed at supersonic speed
"I think it's very, very appropriate that we celebrate the
(holiday) with a sign of bold science and a statement that
America still is an exploring society seeking to make life
better for our children," said NASA administrator Dan Goldin.
First visit in nearly 21 years
The last time a spacecraft from Earth landed on Mars was on
September 3, 1976, when the U.S. Viking 2 spacecraft came
down on the Martian surface. But the Viking spacecraft
planted itself in one spot. Unlike the Sojourner, it could
not maneuver about the planet's surface.
And unlike the Viking probe, which established an orbit
around Mars and gradually descended, Pathfinder will
literally crash land onto the surface, cushioned by balloons
that will inflate just before impact. It will then bounce to
a stop like a beach ball.
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This unprecedented landing technique is not without risk.
200-person crew monitoring the mission at NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is bracing for
the possibility of failure.
"We are actually thinking about all the things that could go
wrong and how we might respond to them," said Richard Cook,
the mission manager.
Because Earth will be on the Martian horizon at the hour of
landing, making communication with the spacecraft impossible,
it could take a nail-biting two to four hours before
scientists get the first signals from Pathfinder indicating
that it survived the impact.
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