Lake County News, California – Space News: NASA marks 25 years since Pathfinder landed on Mars


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 evening in July 1997, Jennifer Trosper came home from work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory clutching a picture of the Martian surface on her steering wheel.

Earlier in the day, the agency’s Pathfinder mission had landed on Mars encased in protective air bags and captured the image of the red, bumpy landscape that pierced through it.

“While I was on the freeway, I had this image on my steering wheel and I kept staring at it,” Trosper said, recalling. “I probably should have taken a closer look at the road.”

Given that Trosper was the mission’s flight director, his excitement was understandable. Not only had Pathfinder landed on Mars, a feat 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 was about to change the course of Mars exploration forever: they had sent instructions to Pathfinder to extend a ramp so that the first Mars rover in history, Sojourner, could rolling on the surface of the planet.

This mosaic of eight images was acquired by Pathfinder on July 5, 1997, the second Martian day, or sol, of the mission. The newly deployed Sojourner rover – the first of its kind on the Red Planet – rests on the Martian surface after rolling down the Pathfinder ramp. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Named after feisty American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, the rover weighed just 25 pounds (11 kilograms) and was no bigger than a microwave oven.

But after landing and spending 83 days roaming the surface, the tiny spacecraft has proven that it is possible to explore Mars with a rover.

It also led Trosper to work on a series of ever larger and more complex rovers: Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity, and NASA’s most advanced Mars rover to date, Perseverance, on which she served as project manager until has recently.

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

With each new mission and each new way to explore Mars, humanity gains a better understanding of how the Red Planet once looked like Earth, covered in rivers and lakes and exhibiting the chemistry needed to support life.

NASA’s search for life on the Martian surface began in earnest in 1976, when the twin Viking landers arrived. The agency wouldn’t land another spacecraft on Mars until Pathfinder, which was born at a time when NASA was tasked with building its missions “faster, better, cheaper.”

The Pathfinder team leveraged new approaches and technologies to deliver the mission ahead of schedule and at a lower cost than Viking landers.

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

Jessica Samuels, an engineering intern in Arizona when Pathfinder landed, remembers watching media coverage of the event with her roommate. The excitement helped her get into aerospace engineering.

“That moment — seeing this little mechanical rover exploring the surface of another planet — made me realize that this is something I would love to do,” said Samuels, now Perseverance’s mission leader. “I’ve always been interested in space, but that’s when I thought it could be my profession.”

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

Doug Ellison, who today uploads commands to Curiosity from JPL, was about to start university in the English countryside when Pathfinder landed. After hearing about the Pathfinder website, he cycled into town to a computer company that allowed people to pay by the hour for internet access.

With company employees huddled behind him, Ellison recorded Pathfinder’s Martian landscapes onto a 3 1/2-inch floppy disk (this was a time long before cloud computing) and printed them on a black and white dot-matrix printer. white to create a view of the Red Planet that he could see from his home.

He taped the prints to form a circle. Then he stuck his head in.

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

Still, the internet has provided 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 as we can as quickly as possible on our rover missions,” Ellison said. “I think the Mars program owes Pathfinder a debt of gratitude for being the springboard for everything since.”

NASA’s Mars Sojourner rover captured this panorama of the Red Planet about a week before its last data transmission, which was on September 27, 1997. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Technical demonstrations lead the way

Sojourner started as a technology demonstration, NASA’s way of testing and proving what’s possible. Ingenuity started the same way – though now it’s a demonstration of scouting operations on Mars not just for Perseverance, but for a possible landing point for a future sample return campaign on Mars. March.

The campaign would bring samples collected by Perseverance to Earth to be studied by powerful laboratory equipment in search of signs of ancient microscopic life. But the campaign would include other milestones, such as the first launch of a rocket to the surface of another planet (a crucial part of getting samples from Mars to Earth). This feat would also support future efforts to land humans on Mars and bring them home.

In 1997, Trosper and his team had their hands full learning to drive a rover on Mars for the first time. “We were a bit like cowboys. 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, finding a way to what seemed nearly impossible before.

NASA’s Sojourner Mars rover captured this image of the Pathfinder lander with airbags, now deflated, that were 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. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.


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