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One 'marvelous' Martian week


NASA says Pathfinder already has met objectives

July 11, 1997
Web posted at: 8:20 p.m. EDT (0020 GMT)

PASADENA, California (CNN) -- One week after Mars Pathfinder dropped onto the surface of Mars and into the public's imagination, the man in charge of turning the mission from concept to reality gave his verdict Friday: "Marvelous."

Pathfinder project manager Anthony Spear also had a word or two for those skeptics who doubted that the Pathfinder team could successfully put a spacecraft on Mars on time and within budget, using technologies that had never been tried before.

NASA Animation of the landing on Mars
video icon 3.5MB/50 sec. Large QuickTime movie
1.9MB/50 sec. Small QuickTime movie

"The diplomatic critics would say, 'Hey, Tony, you have little chance of landing safely.' The more vocal would say, 'Stop this project now,'" Spear says. "Now that it's a major success, I think back, and it's a wonderful feeling to recall some of the conversations with these so-called experts that told us 'Hey, you don't have any chance.'"

"But the most staggering thought I get is, what if we had listened to them and lost heart?"

Thursday's activities scrapped due to glitch

Despite the elation of the Pathfinder team over the mission's success to date, there have been difficulties in recent days.


On Wednesday, the rover went a bit too far and climbed part of the way up on a rock it was supposed to analyze with APXS, its X-ray spectrometer. That meant the device couldn't be used until the rover was backed off the rock.

Then Thursday, a problem with timing communications between Earth and Mars forced a whole day's work to be scrapped.

A command to turn on the receiver on the Pathfinder's lander was given 11 minutes too late. Mission manager Richard Cook said the mistake wasn't discovered for several hours, and during that time the lander wasn't receiving instructions.

Cook said that because of the delay, the decision was made to simply scrap Thursday night's activities, including repositioning the rover. Instead, the crew was given the night off.

"On the seventh day, we decided to rest," quipped Cook, who said the commands would be reissued on Friday night, which is when the eighth Martian day of the mission will begin.

Major goals met as first week ends

With the first week on Mars behind them, the scientists and engineers who put Pathfinder on the Red Planet say they have already met the major objectives set for the mission.

Pathfinder landed without incident, using a drop, bounce and roll technology that had never been tried before. Its rover, Sojourner, journeyed onto the surface of Mars and performed scientific analyses of soil and at least one rock. A weather station has been sending back information on temperature and wind.

3d image

Also, imagers on board both the lander and the rover have sent back panoramic views of the Martian surface, including three-dimensional images unveiled at a press conference Friday -- during which scientists and reporters donned cheap, decidedly low-tech plastic glasses to get the full effect.

The mission has also been a public relations triumph, with more than 150 million hits on the Pathfinder's World Wide Web sites in the first week alone.

But perhaps the most important accomplishment of the mission, at least when it comes to long-term Mars exploration, is that NASA's new mantra of building projects "faster, better and cheaper" has proven to be feasible.

"It's helped us with a huge number of steps that we have to take for the future and the eventual [human] exploration of Mars," said Norm Haynes, director of Mars exploration for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where Pathfinder was built.

"Besides our technical challenge to land on Mars, we were on the hook to [demonstrate] a new way of doing business," Spear said.

Future missions to benefit from Pathfinder's path

Pathfinder, built in three years for about one-fourth the cost of a single space shuttle mission, is the first of nine probes that will go to Mars between now and 2005, when an unmanned spacecraft is scheduled to return from Mars with the first soil and rock samples.

At Friday's news briefing, Dr. Larry Soderblom of the U.S. Geological Survey, who is part of the Pathfinder science team, said the mission already has provided some key information for planning future trips.

For instance, at the site where Pathfinder landed, the wind has blown away sand dunes that cover much of the surface of Mars, exposing rocks that could provide information about the Martian past, including the question of whether primitive life ever existed there.

Images of Mars from Viking

Soderblom said future missions should be targeted to land in similar sites, because the secrets contained in those rocks will be easier to uncover than they would be in areas covered by dunes.

"But it also means that we're going to land in some places that are rougher than a cob, and that we need to start gearing the exploration program in that direction," he said. "The [landing] technology that we used on Pathfinder is one way to get into these extremely rough environments."

And in those rough places, he said, it is unlikely that rovers will ever be able to travel vast distances over such inhospitable terrain.

Untested craft performed as projected

During the past week, scientists in Pasadena have been busy analyzing data from Pathfinder's July 4 descent through the Martian atmosphere and landing on the surface. What they have found is that the spacecraft performed as designed -- despite the fact that the entire system had never been tested as a whole from start to finish.

"All of the data seems to be within the margin we designed for. Even the surprises are within the margins we designed for, which is very nice," said descent and landing engineer Dara Sabahi. "It's really pleasant to finally understand how it really worked compared to all of the different ways we thought it would work."

Because all of the conditions Pathfinder would face could not be simulated on Earth, Sabahi said the only end-to-end tests of the mission were done with a computer simulation.

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