By Michael Lindemann
As festivities in Roswell, New Mexico were reaching their peak on Independence Day, July 4, 1997, in another quarter of the cosmos "the little spacecraft that could" was performing beyond expectations, leaving mission scientists back on earth groping for words to express their excitement. Mars Pathfinder slammed into the Red Planet shortly before 10:00 a.m. Pacific daylight time, within 30 miles of its target (considered a perfect hit in space exploration), surrounded by airbags that caused it to bounce more than 50 feet into the thin Martian air before coming to rest on an ancient floodplain called Ares Vallis.
Its first signal was received at 10:07 a.m. PDT on July 4, confirming that it had safely arrived. By 4:30 p.m., it was sending back the first pictures of its surroundings, surprisingly sharp and clear, and in full color. Mission scientists remarked that the pictures were better than expected. Also much better than expected was the rate of data transmission, which since the landing has run three to six times faster than planned. One spokesman called it "a firehose of data."
After a minor delay while the airbags were retracted under the lander, the tiny rover called Sojourner deployed as planned and began its slow crawl toward several nearby rocks. In the first days of the mission, scientists dubbed rocks with comical names such as "Yogi" and "Barnacle Bill," and began referring to the "rock stars."
Clearly, many at mission control were almost giddy over the success of this mission, the first time since 1976 that any spacecraft has reached Mars fully intact and performed its appointed tasks.
Early highlights in the data included clear evidence that the surrounding region had once seen vast floods, confirming that Mars had had a period of wetness similar to earth. The composition of rock samples also startled scientists, who said Mars geology now seems to be much more like earth than expected.
Findings of this kind cannot help but bolster hopes that Mars will soon provide unmistakable signs of life, either ancient fossils or -- in the best-case scenario -- current living forms.
Mission scientists also enthused over the fact that early performance of both the Pathfinder lander and the Sojourner rover suggest they will be able to perform long past their planned operation schedule, perhaps sending back data for as much as a full earth year, or until the onset of Mars winter freezes them into submission.
CNI News will publish a "Mars Special" edition on July 20, 1997 with in-depth coverage of all aspects of the Mars mission up to that date.
Original file name: CNI - Mars summary
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