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Communications glitch hampers Mars rover


Pathfinder transmits dramatic images

Latest developments: July 5, 1997
Web posted at: 3:47 p.m. EDT (1947 GMT)

PASADENA, California (CNN) -- NASA scientists scrambled Saturday to fix a communications problem with Pathfinder's star performer: the little rover that is to journey onto the Martian surface.

If the problem is not corrected, engineers may not be able to drive the six-wheeled Sojourner on Mars via remote control, rover manager Jacob Matijevic said.

Pathfinder image gallery Opinion Poll: Mars Exploration

"The great galactic ghoul had to get us somewhere and apparently the ghoul has decided to pick on the rover," said Donna Shirley, the Mars exploration program manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Landing zone

NASA has hoped the rover will record chemical information about rocks and soil on Mars that could provide valuable clues as to whether life could ever have existed on the planet.

The communications problem between Pathfinder and Sojourner emerged late Friday, hours after a flawless and dramatic landing on the red planet after a seven-month journey of 309 million miles.

It also came as Pathfinder beamed back historic photographs of Mars' desolate, rock-strewn surface.

Engineers 'confident'

But as the photographs poured in, engineers discovered one of the air bags that cushioned Pathfinder's landing had not fully retracted, blocking the rover's pioneering roll to Martian soil.

'The great galactic ghoul had to get us somewhere.'

— Donna Shirley, Mars exploration program manager

Engineers managed to clear at least one of two routes for Sojourner to reach the surface and its treasure trove of rocks. But commands sent to deploy one of two ramps and unlatch the rover were not confirmed before transmissions ceased Friday night.

At the earliest, the rover could get moving by 10:30 p.m. EDT Saturday, Matijevic said. Sojourner originally had been scheduled to roll at midnight EDT (0400 GMT) Friday, about an hour and a half before the daylight period on Mars ends.

'We have confidence we'll be able to find a way to fix and resolve this problem.'

— rover manager Jacob Matijevic

Matijevic said computers on board Pathfinder and the rover were not communicating properly. He said small "chunks" of data were going through, but "large chunks" were not.

"We have confidence we'll be able to find a way to fix and resolve this problem," Matijevic said.

The communication is an essential element of the mission because commands to the rover are sent through the mother ship.

"We need to get this communication problem, basically, fixed," said deputy project manager Brian Muirhead.

Matijevic added that if the rover has not heard from NASA engineers within about two days, it will automatically begin its historic roll, using pre-set data stored in memory.

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

latest photos

Analyzing the images

The first full-color views of the planet from Pathfinder, perched on 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."

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).

Since then, officials have been analyzing the images for new clues about Mars. So far, engineers said, they've uncovered several interesting observations:

  • The rocks in the photographs slant toward the northwest, indicating that 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 said they were perplexed by an object in one of the photographs. Smith said he believed the squiggly object might be a Pathfinder parachute. But, he said, geologists believed it was a fascinating rock that needs to be investigated further.

"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."

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