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NASA gets good news on Pathfinder glitch


Landing craft, rover communicating again

July 5, 1997
Web posted at: 7:32 p.m. EDT (2332 GMT)

PASADENA, California (CNN) -- NASA officials say the Mars Pathfinder's landing craft and its rover, Sojourner, have started communicating with each other again -- ending a daylong drama that threatened to cast a cloud on a space mission that had been exceeding expectations.

"This is fantastic news. We feel like we've been invited back to the party," said rover coordinator Matt Wallace. "We're ready to go for a drive."

Cheers and high-fives erupted in Mission Control as someone else chimed in, "We're alive, we're alive."

Late Friday evening, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, discovered that only the smallest bits of information were getting through from the rover to the lander. That could have hampered the ability to move the rover around the Martian surface.

Scientists labored all day Saturday to correct what they believed was a software problem in a modem on the rover. Just before 7 p.m. EDT Saturday (2300 GMT), they began to receive data sent from the rover to the lander to Pasadena, indicating that their efforts had been successful.

landing zone

Rover the centerpiece of Pathfinder mission

The rover, which will be the first mobile craft from Earth to ever travel around the surface of another planet, is the "gee whiz" centerpiece of the Pathfinder mission. And the communication link was an essential element in its success, because commands to the rover from Earth are sent through the lander.

Sojourner had been programmed to eventually begin its historic roll on its own, using pre-set data stored in its memory. But NASA scientists clearly preferred not to resort to that backup plan.

"We would prefer to try to command that activity, as opposed to letting the rover make up its own mind to do this itself," said Jacob Matijevic, rover manager.

With its communications problems solved, the rover could be deployed at the earliest by about 10:40 p.m. EDT Saturday (0240 GMT Sunday). NASA officials were to have a press conference at 8 p.m. EDT to release more details about their plans.

new pictures

NASA analyzing Mars images

NASA officials have been busy analyzing the images being sent back by Pathfinder, which started arriving back on Earth about 9:35 p.m. EDT Friday (0135 GMT Saturday) So far, engineers say they have been able to make several interesting observations:

  • The rocks in the photographs slant toward the northwest, indicating a flood could have oriented them in that direction. The pictures were taken in a flood plain.
  • The soil contains more than one color, meaning "there's definitely two types of soil here," according to Peter Smith, the principal manager for the Pathfinder imager.

Officials also said they were perplexed by an object in one of the photographs.

"The most mysterious thing in this picture is this little object on the horizon that has been likened to a couch," Smith said, pointing to the object. "Somebody suggested there was a homeless person camped out there."

He said he believed the squiggly object might be one of the parachutes used to help Pathfinder slow down during entry. But, he said, geologists believed it was a fascinating rock that needs to be investigated further.

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