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NASA: Pathfinder lands, sends data to Earth

July 4, 1997
Web posted at: 5:58 p.m. EDT (2158 GMT)

PASADENA, California (CNN) -- The Mars Pathfinder space probe has landed successfully on Martian soil and has transmitted its first batch of data to Earth, according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

JPL scientists confirmed the landing based on a change in the radio signal strength received from Pathfinder's transmitter, then received the first data shortly after 5:00 p.m. EDT.

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"We know that it hit the surface, that it all worked, that it is alive on the surface," Shirley said. "It all worked."

The U.S. probe is the first spacecraft launched from Earth to arrive on Mars in more than 20 years. The landing, in a rough, rocky flood plain called Ares Vallis, was confirmed at 1:07 p.m. EDT. The news was greeted with loud cheering and hugging, with a few tears, among the scientists at JPL.

Unlike previous Mars probes, which established an orbit in the Martian atmosphere and slowly descended to the planet's surface, Pathfinder used a new technique where it literally bounced to a stop, buffeted by large air bags that inflated just before impact.


If all goes as scheduled, here is what should unfold on Mars over the next few hours:

  • Between about 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. EDT (2230 and 2400 GMT), the camera and telecommunications antenna will be deployed and pointed toward Earth. The first detailed images will be received on Earth.
  • NASA is scheduled to publicly release the first Mars images from Pathfinder at 9 p.m. EDT (0100 GMT).
  • Just before midnight EDT (0400 GMT), Pathfinder's small, nimble rover, named Sojourner, will move out of the lander and on to the Martian surface to begin a month of exploration.

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.

surface of Mars photo

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

Both the main landing craft and Sojourner also have cameras on board and will 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 that 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 soil or rock samples which would be needed for a definitive answer.

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