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NASA marks 25 years since Pathfinder touched down on Mars

NASA marks 25 years since Pathfinder landed on Mars

This mosaic of eight images was acquired by Pathfinder on July 5, 1997, the mission’s second Mars day, or sol. The newly deployed Sojourner rover — the first of its kind on the Red Planet — sits on the surface of Mars after descending Pathfinder’s ramp. Credit: NASA/JPL

When a daring team of engineers placed a lander and the first rover on the Red Planet a quarter of a century ago, they changed the way the world explores.

One July evening in 1997, Jennifer Trosper drove home from work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory with a photograph of the Martian surface at her wheel. Earlier that day, the agency’s Pathfinder mission had landed on Mars, swathed in protective airbags, and captured the picture of the red, rugged landscape that kept her grounded.

“While I was on the highway, I had that image on my handlebars and kept looking at it,” Trosper said, reminiscing. “I probably should have looked more closely at the road.”

NASA marks 25 years since Pathfinder landed on Mars

NASA’s Sojourner Mars rover is seen on the 22nd Mars day, or sol, of the Pathfinder mission near a site nicknamed “The Dice” (three small rocks behind the rover) and a rock nicknamed “The Dice” yogi”. Credit: NASA/JPL

Since Trosper was the mission’s flight director, her excitement was understandable. Pathfinder had not only landed on Mars, an achievement in itself, but it had done so at a fraction of the cost and time required for previous Mars missions. And the next day, the team would change the course of Mars exploration forever: They had sent instructions to Pathfinder to extend a ramp so that history’s first Mars rover, Sojourner, could roll to the planet’s surface.

NASA marks 25 years since Pathfinder landed on Mars

NASA’s Sojourner Mars rover captured this image of the Pathfinder lander with airbags, now deflated, used to cushion the spacecraft during landing. The letters “JPL” and an American flag can be seen on the lander’s electronics box below the lander’s camera, which is mounted on a mast. Credit: NASA/JPL

Named after ardent American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, the robber weighed just 25 pounds (11 kilograms) and was no bigger than a microwave oven. But after landing and 83 days of surface travel, the small spacecraft proved it was possible to explore Mars with a rover. It also led Trosper to work on a series of increasingly larger, more complex rovers: Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity, and NASA’s most advanced Mars rover to date, Perseverance, where she was project manager until recently.

In fact, just as Pathfinder took Sojourner for the ride, Perseverance brought Ingenuity, the plucky little helicopter that proved powered, controlled flight in Mars’ thin atmosphere is possible. Scheduled for just five flights, Ingenuity has flown 29 times so far and has the potential to revolutionize Mars exploration just as Sojourner did a quarter of a century ago.

With every new mission and every new way to explore Mars, humanity gains a greater understanding of what the Red Planet once looked like, covered by rivers and lakes, and with the chemistry needed to sustain life.

The documentary “The Pathfinders” tells the story of a small group of engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who took on the challenge of both placing a lander on the Red Planet with airbags and deploying the first Mars rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s search for life on the surface of Mars began in earnest in 1976, when the two Viking landers arrived. The agency wouldn’t land another spacecraft on Mars until Pathfinder, which came at a time when NASA had been instructed to build its missions “faster, better, cheaper.” The Pathfinder team took advantage of new approaches and technologies to deliver the mission ahead of schedule and at a lower cost than the Viking landers.

Inspiring future explorers

Jessica Samuels, a tech intern in Arizona at the time of Pathfinder’s landing, recalls seeing coverage of the event with her roommate. The excitement helped her to pursue aerospace engineering.

“That moment—when I saw this little mechanical rover explore the surface of another planet—made me realize I’d love to do that,” said Samuels, now Perseverance’s mission manager. “I’ve always been interested in space, but that was the spark that I thought could be my profession.”

To take the public on a journey, the agency harnessed the power of another kind of relatively new technology: the Internet. A website dedicated to the mission featured the latest images of Mars, and it became a sensation.

Doug Ellison, who uploads commands to JPL’s Curiosity today, was about to attend college in rural England when Pathfinder landed. After hearing about Pathfinder’s website, he cycled into town to an IT company where people could pay for internet access by the hour.

With the company’s employees chasing, Ellison saved Pathfinder’s Mars landscapes on a 3 1/2-inch floppy disk (this was an era long before cloud computing) and printed them on a black-and-white dot-matrix printer to create a view of the Red Planet that he could watch from home.

He glued the prints on to form a circle. Then he stuck his head in it.

NASA marks 25 years since Pathfinder landed on Mars

NASA’s Sojourner Mars rover captured this panorama of the Red Planet about a week before the last data transfer, which occurred on September 27, 1997. Credit: NASA/JPL

“It was pretty much the worst VR experience ever,” Ellison said.

Still, the internet offered an inspiring new way to experience space exploration.

“Putting so much online so quickly was a paradigm shift. That’s the motivation today to share as much of our rover missions as quickly as possible,” Ellison said. “I think the Mars program owes Pathfinder a lot of credit because it’s been the complete stepping stone for everything since then.”

Tech demos lead the way

Sojourner started as a technology demonstration, NASA’s way of testing and proving what’s possible. Ingenuity began the same way, although it is now a demonstration for exploring locations on Mars, not only for perseverance, but also for a possible landing site for a future Mars Sample Return campaign.

The campaign would bring samples collected by Perseverance to Earth to be studied with high-powered lab equipment looking for signs of ancient microscopic life. But the campaign would include other milestones, such as the first instance of a rocket launched from another planet’s surface (a crucial part of getting samples from Mars to Earth). That achievement would also support future efforts to land humans on Mars and return them home.

In 1997, Trosper and the team had their hands full when they first learned to fly a rover on Mars. “We were a bit cowboyish. We just didn’t know what we didn’t know,” she said.

What they did know was this: their mission lived up to its name and found a path forward to what previously seemed nearly impossible.

NASA launches 2 more helicopters to Mars to return rocks

Provided by Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Quote: NASA marks 25 years since Pathfinder landed on Mars (2022, July 27) retrieved July 27, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-07-nasa-years-pathfinder-mars.html

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