PASADENA, Calif. (AP) -- This Independence Day, NASA's Mars Pathfinder will gently parachute to the rocky surface of the red planet to begin a search that one day could yield evidence of life.
If successful, Pathfinder would be the first earthly craft to touch Mars since NASA's twin Viking landers set down in 1976. If it fails, the $267.5 million Pathfinder mission would join four U.S. and Russian Mars-bound flops in the last decade, including America's $1 billion Mars Observer that was lost in space in 1993.
Pathfinder is headed for Ares Vallis, a vast, ancient flood plain about 525 miles southeast of where Viking 1 landed.
After its airbag-cushioned touchdown, Pathfinder will release Sojourner, a 22-pound, solar-powered rover about the size of a microwave oven -- the smallest planetary craft ever launched.
Instruments aboard the 793-pound Pathfinder lander, which should operate for a month, will take color pictures and compile a Mars weather report.
Pathfinder heralds a new era of U.S. space exploration. In its wake, NASA will dispatch fleets of small, unmanned spaceships to scout places which better instruments -- and intrepid astronauts -- might visit later.
"Initially, (Pathfinder) will just look at geochemistry of the surface ... at areas that look like they've been flooded with water, places we're most likely to (eventually) find ancient evidence of life," says Wesley Huntress Jr., NASA's space science chief in Washington, D.C.
Mission officials anticipate plenty of nervous anticipation come July 4. "I'm going to be sweating bullets," says Huntress.
Pathfinder is a flagship in NASA's push to develop "faster, cheaper, better" missions. It should provide what scientists call "ground truth" for more distant observations by the Mars Global Surveyor, which was launched in November 1996 and is set to begin orbiting the red planet Sept. 11.
For a 687-day martian year, Surveyor will take atmospheric measurements and map terrain using the same types of instruments aboard the ill-fated Mars Observer.
Global Surveyor kicked off a 10-year program of Mars exploration in which NASA plans to launch pairs of orbiters and landers every 26 months. NASA hopes to bring rock samples back home in 2005.
Human travel could come in 2011, depending on the will of taxpayers and the advancement of technology. But all that is way down the road. First, Pathfinder must reach the martian surface.
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