No planet in the solar system holds more mystery and fascination than Mars. And now a bargain-basement spacecraft called the Mars Pathfinder is writing the latest entries in the Martian chronicles. Pathfinder is the first successful mission to Mars since the two Viking probes landed there in 1976.
In a technological tour de force, Pathfinder parachuted through the thin Martian atmosphere, inflated a protective cocoon of airbags and bounced to a soft touchdown just after 1 PM EDT on the 4th of July. After a six-month voyage, it landed precisely on target and began performing nearly flawlessly. Shortly after reaching the surface, the spacecraft began sending its first images of the Red Planet. The few minor glitches encountered so far have been quickly corrected by commands radioed from Earth.
By July 5, a six-wheeled "micro-rover," dubbed Sojourner, had rolled down its flexible ramp onto the surface of Mars. About the size of a household microwave oven, Sojourner is an experiment in automated robotics, designed to pilot itself between the rocks, study the composition of the soil and rocks and send the data back to the Earth.
At a press conference on July 6, excited scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the project, announced the first scientific results from the Pathfinder mission. Already, data sent back to the Earth seem to confirm earlier thoughts that the landing site, in a region known as Ares Vallis, appears to be an ancient floodplain. Although images of Ares Vallis broadly resemble those from the Viking landing site some 850 kilometers away--both look like an arid, ruddy desert strewn with rocks of various sizes--the two sites are actually quite different.
The Viking probes landed in an ancient lava flow; all the surrounding rocks were of similar, igneous composition. But in Ares Vallis, project scientists believe they are seeing what they had hoped for: a variety of rocks that were most likely transported to the site from great distances by flowing water. The hills near Pathfinder hold some other intriguing features. Preliminary images reveal a series of horizontal bands that could be layers of sedimentary rock or benches cut into the sides of the valley by rushing water.
If the bands prove to be layers of sedimentary rock, they would be just the place to look for fossil evidence of ancient life on Mars. Such a finding would confirm the sensational recent report of possible fossilized bacteria in a meteorite found in Antarctica that is believed to have originated on Mars. Sojourner will not be able to conduct a search for fossils, but NASA hopes to return Mars rocks to the earth for detailed analysis early next century.
What Sojourner will discover remains to be seen as the tiny rover begins its slow crawl over the rocky terrain. At top speed, it can cover a mere 0.4 meters each minute. Even at that speed, however, Sojourner should be able to examine a far greater variety of rocks and soil than have been studied so far. It will transmit its data to Pathfinder, which will relay it to the earth. Pathfinder also functions as a weather station, sending back meteorological data on the thin Martian atmosphere.