Scientists are not alone in their excitement at the return to Mars. The Pathfinder website is reeling from tens of thousands of Internet users seeking the latest information on the intrepid craft. And in Washington, D.C., long lines of people snaked through the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum to glimpse the first pictures snapped by Pathfinder.
Pathfinder's early success is another feather in the cap for NASA's Discovery program, which aims to conduct important space science experiments for less than $150 million. (Pathfinder's budget was less than one fifteenth the price of the Viking program, when adjusted for inflation.) Only a week ago, another Discovery mission, the NEAR probe, made a similarly impressive showing when it sent back high-resolution images of the asteroid Mathilde.
In the wake of Pathfinder's success, the world should not have to wait another 20 years for the next visit to Mars. Pathfinder is the first round of NASA's Mars Surveyor Program, a series of missions to be launched every 26 months over the next decade. These spacecraft should vastly expand our understanding of the Red Planet and may answer whether it was once an abode for life.
Sojourner is preparing the way for a more sophisticated rover that was recently being tested in the Mojave Desert, here on the Earth. Called Rocky 7 (while Sojourner was under construction it was known as Rocky 4), it is scheduled for missions to Mars in 2001 and 2002. In the recent shake down, Rocky 7 maneuvered over one kilometer, taking more than 500 photographs and placing scientific instruments along the way.
In comparison, Sojourner is fairly primitive. Its ability to avoid dangerous terrain, such as craters and rocks, is limited because it depends on the lander's imaging system to plan its course. Rocky 7 will navigate on its own using small stereo cameras mounted on its front.
For now, it is tiny Sojourner's turn. The results of its preparatory ramblings are likely to make Mars seem a little less mysterious--but, quite possibly, even more fascinating.