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Mars Pathfinder

By Wikipedia,
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Mars Pathfinder
Organization NASA - JPL
Mission type Lander, rover
Orbital insertion date Landed 4 July 1997 UT 16:57
Launch date 4 December 1996 at 06:58:07 UTC from ESMC / launch complex 17B
Launch vehicle Delta 7925 (#D240)
COSPAR ID 1996-068A
Mass 264 kg (lander), 10.5 kg (rover)
Power 35 W (lander) 13 W (rover)

The Mars Pathfinder (MESUR Pathfinder) was launched on December 4, 1996 by NASA aboard a Delta II just a month after the Mars Global Surveyor was launched. After a 7-month voyage it landed on Ares Vallis, in a region called Chryse Planitia on Mars, on 4 July 1997. During its voyage the spacecraft had to accomplish four flight adjustments on 10 January, 3 February, 6 May and 25 June. The lander opened, exposing the rover called Sojourner that would go on to execute many experiments on the Martian surface.

The mission carried a series of scientific instruments to analyze the Martian atmosphere, climate, geology and the composition of its rocks and soil. It was the second project from NASA's Discovery Program, which promotes the use of low-cost spacecraft and frequent launches under the motto "cheaper, faster and better" promoted by the then administrator, Daniel Goldin. The mission was directed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a division of the California Institute of Technology, responsible for NASA's Mars Exploration Program.

This mission to Mars, besides being the first of a series of missions to Mars that included rovers (robotic exploration vehicles), was the most important since the Vikings landed on the red planet in 1976, and also was the first successful mission to send a rover to a planet. The then still extant Soviet Union successfully sent rovers to the Moon as part of the Lunokhod programme in the 1970s, but its two attempts to send rovers in the Mars probe program failed.

In addition to scientific objectives, the Mars Pathfinder mission was also a "proof-of-concept" for various technologies, such as airbag-mediated touchdown and automated obstacle avoidance, both later exploited by the Mars Exploration Rovers. The Mars Pathfinder was also remarkable for its extremely low price relative to other unmanned space missions to mars. Originally, the mission was conceived as the first of the Mars Environmental Survey (MESUR) program.

Mission Overview

Mars Pathfinder launched on 4 December 1996
Mars Pathfinder launched on 4 December 1996

Rover off the pad to investigate a rock on Mars in 1997
Rover off the pad to investigate a rock on Mars in 1997

The lander relayed transmissions to and from the robot, allowing it to operate independently of the probe body. The robot was remotely controlled, but had a basic camera-assisted autonomous control system allowing it to navigate and negotiate minor obstacles without operator intervention.

The robot's freedom of movement allowed the exploration team to closely analyze many more rocks and soil samples than with a traditional probe. From its landing in July 4, 1997 until the final data transmission on September 27, 1997, Mars Pathfinder returned 16,500 images from the lander and 550 images from the rover, as well as more than 15 chemical analyses of rocks and soil and extensive data on winds and other weather factors. Findings from the investigations carried out by scientific instruments on both the lander and the rover suggest that Mars was at one time in its past warm and wet, with water existing in its liquid state and a thicker atmosphere.

The lander and rover performed for much longer and better than expected, but eventually contact with the lander was lost on sol 83. The lander's silver-zinc battery was only capable of being recharged about 40 times, as a consequence after about 40 sols, the battery was not able to keep the lander warm at night. The exact reason for the final failure of the lander is not certain, but it was probably due to an electronics failure due to the very cold night-time temperatures that were experienced in the final weeks of the mission. After sol 92, the automatic backup procedures should have instructed the rover to return to the lander and circle it while attempting to re-establish communications. This behavior would have continued until hardware failure. The lack of communication may mean that the rover's final location and state are unknown. NASA's efforts to recontact Pathfinder ended on March 10, 1998.

Mission objectives

  • To prove that the development of "faster, better and cheaper" spacecraft is possible (with three years for development and a cost under $150 million).
  • To show that it is possible to send a load of scientific instruments to another planet with a simple system and at one fifteenth the cost of a Viking mission. (For comparison, the Viking missions cost $935 million in 1974 or $3.5 billion in 1997 dollars)
  • To demonstrate NASA's commitment to low-cost planetary exploration by finishing the mission with a total expenditure of $280 million, including the launch vehicle and mission operations.

The project manager was Tony Spear.

The probe

The probe consisted of a lander and a lightweight (10.6 kilograms/23 pounds) wheeled robot (Rover) called Sojourner ("one in a break from journeying"), after the sometime slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth. [1] (See below for the selection of the name.)

Mission equipment

1990s concept illustration of lander and rover
1990s concept illustration of lander and rover

Mar Pathfinder lander IMP
Mar Pathfinder lander IMP

Actual 1997 image from the IMP after landing on Mars
Actual 1997 image from the IMP after landing on Mars

The Mars Pathfinder executed different investigations on the Martian soil using three scientific instruments. The lander contained a stereoscopic camera with spatial filters on an expandable pole called Imager for Mars Pathfinder (IMP), and the Atmospheric Structure Instrument/Meteorology Package (ASI /MET) which acts as a Mars meteorological station, collecting data about pressure, temperature, and winds. The MET structure included three windsocks mounted at three heights on a pole, the topmost at about one meter (yard) and generally registered winds from the West.

The Sojourner rover had a Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer (APXS), which was used to analyze the components of the rocks and soil. The rover also had two black and white cameras and a color one. These instruments could make investigations of the geology of the Martian surface from just a few millimeters to many hundreds of meters, the geochemistry and evolutionary history of the rocks and surface, the magnetic and mechanical properties of the land, as well as the magnetic properties of the dust, atmosphere and the rotational and orbital dynamics of the planet.

Mars Pathfinder Lander:

  1. Imager for Mars Pathfinder (IMP), (includes magnetometer and anemometer)
  2. Atmospheric and meteorological sensors (ASI/MET)

Mars Pathfinder Sojourner Rover:

  1. Imaging system (three cameras: front B&W stereo, 1 rear color)
  2. Laser striper hazard detection system
  3. Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer (APXS)
  4. Wheel Abrasion Experiment
  5. Material Adherence Experiment
  6. Accelerometers
  7. Potentiometers

Scientific objectives

  • Surface morphology and geology using scaled measurements.
  • Petrology and geochemistry of surface materials.
  • Magnetic and mechanical properties of the surface.
  • Atmospheric structure, besides diurnal and nocturnal meteorological variations.
  • Rotational and orbital dynamics of Mars.

Pathfinder found temperatures varied on a diurnal cycle with the coldest just before sunrise about -78 Celsius with the warmest just after Mars noon about -8 Celsius. These extremes occurred near the ground which both warmed up and cooled down fastest. Temperatures further from the ground at 1.4 m (4.3 feet) were about 10 degrees inside these ranges (-70 at night, to -18 at day). Pathfinder measured temperatures at three heights above the surface: 0.65, 0.9 and 1.4 meters.

Surface pressures varied diurnally over a 0.2 millibar range, but showed 2 daily minimums and two daily maximums. The average daily pressure decreased from about 6.75 millibars to a low of just under 6.7 millbars, corresponding to when the maximum amount of carbon dioxide has condensed on the south pole.

Landing site

Mars Pathfinder seen from space by the MRO HiRISE.
Mars Pathfinder seen from space by the MRO HiRISE.

The landing site was an ancient flood plain in Mars's northern hemisphere called "Ares Vallis" ("the valley of Ares," the Ancient Greek equivalent of the Ancient Roman deity Mars) and is among the rockiest parts of Mars. Scientists chose it because they found it to be a relatively safe surface to land on and one that contained a wide variety of rocks deposited during a catastrophic flood. After the landing, at coordinates 19.13 degrees north, 33.22 degrees west, succeeded, the landing site received the name The Carl Sagan Memorial Station in honor of the late astronomer and leader in the field of robotic spacecraft missions.

Landing process

Mars Pathfinder entered the Martian atmosphere and landed using an innovative system involving an entry capsule, a supersonic parachute, followed by solid rockets and large airbags to cushion the impact.

Pathfinder lands

Mars Pathfinder panorama of landing site taken by IMP

Sojourner rover

The Sojourner rover was the second space exploration rover to successfully reach another planet, and the first to actually be deployed on another planet. Sojourner landed on Mars as part of the Mars Pathfinder mission on July 4, 1997.

The on-board computer

The embedded computer on board the Sojourner rover was based around the 100 KHz Intel 80C85 CPU with 512 KB of RAM and 176 KB of flash memory solid-state storage.

The Sojourner gets out

Sojourner rover
Sojourner rover

Sojourner's exit from the lander occurred on Sol 2, after its landing in July 4, 1997. As the next sols progressed it approached some rocks which were named (by the scientists) "Barnacle Bill", "Yogi", and "Scooby Doo", after the famous cartoons. The rover made measurements of the elements found in those rocks and in the martian soil, while the lander took pictures of the Sojourner and the surrounding terrain, besides making climate observations.

The Sojourner is a six-wheeled 65 cm long vehicle, 48 cm wide, 30 cm tall and weighs 10.5 kg. When operating, it could move about 500 meters from the lander and its maximum speed reached one centimeter per second. During its 83 sols of operation, it sent 550 photographs to Earth and analyzed the chemical properties of sixteen locations near the lander.

Sojourner's rock analysis

Sojourner next to the rock
Sojourner next to the rock "Barnacle Bill"

The first analysis on a rock started on Sol 3 with "Barnacle Bill". The Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) was used to determine its composition, the spectrometer taking ten hours to make a full scan of the sample. It found all the elements except hydrogen, which constitutes just 0.1% of the rock's or soil's mass.

The APXS works by irradiating rocks and soil samples with alpha particles (helium nuclei, which consist of two protons and two neutrons). The results indicated that "Barnacle Bill" is much like Earth's andesites, confirming past volcanic activity.

Analysis of "Yogi" rock again using the APXS showed that it was a basaltic rock, more primitive than "Barnacle Bill". Yogi's shape and texture show that it was probably deposited there by a flood.

Another rock, named "Moe", was found to have certain marks on its surface, demonstrating erosion caused by the wind. Most rocks analyzed showed a high content of silicon. In another region known as Rock Garden the Sojourner encountered crescent Moon-shaped dunes, which are similar to crescentic dunes on Earth.

The lander, on the other hand, sent more than 16,500 pictures and made 8.5 million measurements of the atmospheric pressure, temperature and wind speed.

End of the mission

Close-up of Mars sky at sunset, showing more color variation, as imaged by Mars Pathfinder
Close-up of Mars sky at sunset, showing more color variation, as imaged by Mars Pathfinder

Although the mission was programed to last a week to a month, it eventually lasted for almost three months. The final contact with the Pathfinder was at 10:23 UTC on September 27, 1997. Although the mission planners tried to restore contact during the following five months, the successful mission was terminated on March 10, 1998. After the landing, the Mars Pathfinder was renamed as the Sagan Memorial Station in honor of the famous astronomer and planetologist Carl Sagan. The mission had exceeded its goals in the first month.

The Mars Pathfinder entry descent and landing system design was used (with some modification) on the Mars Exploration Rover mission. Likewise many design aspects of Sojourner rover (e.g. the rocker-bogie mobility architecture and the navigation algorithms) were also successfully used on the Mars Exploration Rover mission.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter may have spotted Pathfinder, January 2007

Naming the rover

The Sojourner Rover is taking its Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer measurement of the Yogi Rock (NASA)
The Sojourner Rover is taking its Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer measurement of the Yogi Rock (NASA)

The name Sojourner was chosen for the Mars Pathfinder rover after a year-long, worldwide competition in which students up to 18 years old were invited to select a heroine and submit an essay about her historical accomplishments. The students were asked to address in their essays how a planetary rover named for their heroine would translate these accomplishments to the Martian environment.

Initiated in March 1994 by The Planetary Society of Pasadena, CA, in cooperation with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the contest got under way with an announcement in the January 1995 issue of the National Science Teachers Association's magazine "Science and Children," which is circulated to 20,000 teachers and schools across the nation.

Valerie Ambroise, 12, of Bridgeport, CT, submitted the winning essay about Sojourner Truth, an African-American reformist who lived during the Civil War era. An abolitionist and champion of women's rights, Sojourner Truth, whose legal name was Isabella Van Wagener, made it her mission to "travel up and down the land," advocating the rights of all people to be free and the rights of women to participate fully in society. The name Sojourner was selected because it means "traveler." JPL scientists and engineers working on the Mars Pathfinder project and Planetary Society staff members reviewed the 3,500 total entries received from all over the world, including essays from students living in Canada, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Poland and Russia. Nearly 1,700 of the essays were submitted by students aged 5 to 18 years old.

The selection of winners from this group by representatives from JPL and NASA Headquarters was based on several factors: the quality and creativity of the essay, taking into consideration the age of each contestant, the appropriateness of the name for a Mars rover, and the knowledge of the heroine, and the understanding of the Pathfinder rover's mission conveyed in the essay.

The second place prize winner was Deepti Rohatgi, 18, of Rockville, MD, who proposed naming the rover after Marie Curie, a Polish-born chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1911 for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium. The test model identical to Sojourner used on earth was named Marie Curie. The third place prize went to Adam Sheedy, 16, of Round Rock, TX, who chose the late astronaut Judith Resnik as his namesake for the new rover.


Wheel size comparison: Sojourner, Mars Exploration Rover, Mars Science Laboratory.
Wheel size comparison: Sojourner, Mars Exploration Rover, Mars Science Laboratory.
  • Images of Sojouner approaching Yogi Rock were used in the opening credits of the Star Trek: Enterprise science fiction television program, the first historical use in a science fiction film or television program of video taken on the surface of another planet.

See also

  • "La misión Pathfinder –rebautizada Carl Sagan Memorial Station, en memoria del célebre astrónomo-, paso a paso todo Marte", de J. Roberto Mallo. Conozca Más, págs. 90-96. Edición número 106 - agosto de 1997.
  • "Un espía que anda por Marte", de Julio Guerrieri. Descubrir, págs. 80-83. Edición número 73 - agosto de 1997.
  • "Mars Pathfinder: el inicio de la conquista de Marte" EL Universo, Enciclopedia de la Astronomía y el Espacio, Editorial Planeta-De Agostini, págs. 58-60. Tomo 5. (1997)
  • Sojourner: An Insider's View of the Mars Pathfinder Mission, by Andrew Mishkin, Senior Systems Engineer, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. ISBN 0-425-19199-0
  • Experiences with operations and autonomy of the Mars Pathfinder microrover, A. H. Mishkin, J. C. Morrison, T. T. Nguyen, H. W. Stone, B. K. Cooper and B. H. Wilcox. In Proceedings of the IEEE Aerospace Conference, Snowmass, CO 1998.

Bibliography on Mars

  • The New Solar System, J. Kelly Beatty, Carolyn Collins Petersen, Andrew Chaikin. Cambridge University Press; 4 edition (1998); ISBN 0-521-64587-5
  • The Surface of Mars, Michael H. Carr. Yale University Press, New Haven; 1 edition (1981); ISBN 0-300-02750-8, ISBN 0-300-03242-0
  • Exploring the Planets, Eric H. Christiansen, Kenneth W. Hamblin. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey; 2 edition (1995); ISBN 0-02-322421-5
  • The Search for Life on Mars: Evolution of an Idea, Henry S.F. Cooper. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, New York (1980); ISBN 0-03-046166-9 (hardcover), ISBN 0-03-059818-4
  • Mars, Percival Lowell. Houghton, Mifflin, Boston, New York (1895). Kessinger Publishing (2004); ISBN 1-4191-3284-9
  • Journey Into Space: The First Thirty Years of Space Exploration, Bruce Murray. W.W. Norton, New York (1989); ISBN 0-393-02675-2 (hardcover), ISBN 0-393-30703-4
  • Planets & Perception: Telescopic Views and Interpretations, 1609-1909, William Sheehan. University of Arizona Press, Tucson (1988); ISBN 0-8165-1059-8
  • The Planet Mars: A History of Observation and Discovery, William Sheehan. University of Arizona Press, Tucson (1996); ISBN 0-8165-1640-5 (hardcover), ISBN 0-8165-1641-3
  • The Martian Landscape, Viking Lander Imaging Team. NASA SP-425 (1978)
  • Viking Orbiter Views of Mars, Viking Orbiter Imaging Team. NASA SP-441 (1980)
  • Mars Beckons, John Noble Wilford. ISBN 0-394-58359-0 (hardcover, 1 edition, 1990), ISBN 0-679-73531-3 (1991), ISBN 0-517-19803-7 (1997)

External links

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Published - July 2009

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