LOS ANGELES (Aug. 8, 1996) - The two Mars-bound spacecraft NASA launches this year won't solve the mystery of whether ancient life existed on Mars, but they will help determine where to look for answers, scientists said Wednesday.
The Mars Global Surveyor, scheduled for November liftoff, will map geological features while orbiting the planet, and could help find the geographic source of the meteorite that's giving scientists hope that primitive life once existed there.
The Mars Pathfinder set for December launch will carry a small rover designed to nose up to Martian rocks and analyze their chemical composition.
That "pint-sized geologist" - in the words of Pathfinder project scientist Matt Golombek - lands on July 4, 1997, and may give scientists enough data to determine the environment in which Mars' rocks formed.
The result could confirm the presence of ancient water - the necessary ingredient for life, said Golombek, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
"We made a lot of the right decisions about where to land it and the kind of questions to go after. That fits in well with the kind of discoveries that were just announced today," Golombek said.
Pathfinder will land at the mouth of a giant channel where rocks from ancient highlands are believed to have been deposited by floods. They're roughly the same age as the 3.6 billion-year-old Mars meteorite that has provided the hints of early life.
Pathfinder will then relay images of a "smorgasbord" of rocks from which some could be chosen for eventual return to Earth, Golombek said.
"The strategy is to build up our knowledge of Mars so when we decide to bring a sample back (we) bring it back from the right place," said Donna Shirley, manager of NASA's Mars Exploration program at JPL.
In addition to the U.S. Pathfinder and Global Surveyor missions, Russia will launch Mars '96 this year. And in 1998, the United States will launch two more Mars missions, while Japan will send up a third.
NASA plans to send up Mars spacecraft every 26 months afterwards.
She said Mars scientists at JPL, which manages NASA's unmanned exploration missions, are excited to be part of a process that could solve the question of early extraterrestrial life.
"Everybody is real excited," she said. "We're buzzing."
Original file name: CNI - AP.Mars Missions Ready
This file was converted with TextToHTML - (c) Logic n.v.