The rover Sojourner taking a chemical composition measurement of a large rock on Mars during the 1997 Pathfinder mission. Photo courtesy NASA/JPL
An image of the Mars surface near the Pathfinder mission landing site. Photo courtesy NASA/JPL
July 4, 2002 -- Five years ago, a plucky little spacecraft called Pathfinder parachuted into Mars. Airbags cushioned the spacecraft as it bounced around like a beach ball on the planet's surface before coming to a final stop. Most Martian scientists were near mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena anxiously awaiting news of a successful landing.
Expectations for the mission's success were low because the airbag technology was new and the Pathfinder's budget was less than $200 million -- tiny compared to other planetary missions. But Pathfinder landed safely, and for three months the microwave-sized six-wheeled rover called Sojourner, working with a small base station, sent back three-dimensional images and data from near its landing site. NPR's Joe Palca reports for All Things Considered on the success of the Pathfinder mission and future plans for Mars exploration.
The most surprising thing about the Martian rocks the rover found near the Pathfinder landing site was their high silicon content, a finding that could indicate that Mars had more volcanoes than previously thought. Based on the stunning success of the 1997 Pathfinder mission, Cornell astronomer Steven Squyres and Rob Manning of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are designing the spacecraft for the next mission to Mars, set to launch in 2003.
An artist's rendering of NASA's 2003 Mars rover. Photo courtesy NASA/JPL
The 2003 mission will build on two successful technologies of the Pathfinder mission, the airbag landing system and the rover. Unlike the Pathfinder, the 2003 Mars mission will have no base station, just a rover. The 2003 Mars rover will be equipped with a special instrument attached to its arm called the RAT. The RAT will grind away at Martian rock looking for evidence of liquid water in the planet's past.
Squyres has heard all about the pressure his mission is under. He knows the Pathfinder's success was remarkable. He also knows about two failed missions that preceded the successful orbit of the Mars Odyssey mission in 2001. The airbag system worked on Pathfinder, but there are no assurances they will work again in 2003.
"I don't know if pressure is the word I would use," Squyres says. "Any time you get involved in space exploration there are high expectations. It certainly is exciting though."