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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. The 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.

S P E C I A L   S E C T I O N Destination Mars
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