Descending patriotically and perfectly, the Mars Pathfinder not only captured the attention of millions but also helped to rouse faith in the U.S. space program, as an effort to execute a low-budget mission.
Pathfinder was launched in December of 1996 and landed on July 4, 1997. The Pathfinder used an interesting way of landing--one never before employed. Parachutes were unfurled to slow Pathfinder in its descent through the thin Martian atmosphere. The parachutes detached themselves one second before landing. They floated away, carried by the Martian winds, to ensure that Pathfinder would not get tangled in the chutes.
Photo. An artist's representation of Pathfinder's descent and landing sequence. Courtesy of NASA, JPL.
The entire spacecraft was covered in air bags that inflated just before impact, providing an all over cushion on which Pathfinder landed. Pathfinder is comprised of three triangular solar panels that opened upon landing to reveal the Rover. The rover, named Sojourner, is a six wheeled vehicle that is controlled by an Earth-based operator. The time delay is actually between 6 and 41 minutes depending upon the current distance between Earth and Mars. Pathfinder landed in the Ares Vallis area.
The Pathfinder Rover is based on NASA's ideas from twenty years ago, but unfortunately, it won't be able to travel hundreds of miles from the landing site as hoped. Sojourner can only venture about 100 meters from where it lands, but that is only a safety precaution. NASA, like any good parent, doesn't want to lose its precious child to the perils of an unknown planetary precipice. Pathfinder operates much like a bug. When bugs find an obstacle in their path, they keep running into it until they find a way around it. Pathfinder rover will essentially do the same thing, using lasers as feelers. Pathfinder is be the second of NASA's late 1990s missions to Mars. Funded as a one-time project by NASA's Discovery program for low-budget missions, Pathfinder has demonstrated that exploration of Mars can be both scientifically effective and cost efficient.
Photo. An artist's conception of the Pathfinder with the Sojourner rover on the surface of Mars. Courtesy of NASA, JPL.
Mission to Mars. An educational site created for the ThinkQuest contest.