Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Pathfinder' Blazes Cheap Trail to Mars NASA Probe Will Look for Signs of Life on Planet

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Pathfinder' Blazes Cheap Trail to Mars NASA Probe Will Look for Signs of Life on Planet

Article excerpt

Exploring Earth's far-flung neighborhood on a shoestring budget gets its latest test Monday, as the United States prepares to launch Mars Pathfinder.

The mission to the Red Planet - the third international Mars launch in a month - aims to place a lander bearing a small, six-wheel rover on martian soil on July 4, 1997.

Targeted to land on an ancient flood plain, the package of cameras and sensors could help unlock secrets to the planet's past and whether it could have hosted life. It also is designed to prove that humans can extend their reach to the surface of another planet without draining taxpayers' wallets. Mars Pathfinder's $196 million price tag is a fraction of the amount spent on sending a Viking orbiter and lander to Mars in the 1970s. "We've turned the old way of doing business upside down," says Wesley Huntress, associate administrator for space science at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Washington. Set to launch at 2:09 a.m. Monday, the 1-ton Pathfinder payload uses parachutes, radar, small braking rockets, and air bags to soften its landing. Once down, the bud-like lander's three "petals" unfold. On one sits the rover, looking like a refugee from a 21st-century Sharper Image catalog. Topped with a 2-by-1.5 foot array of solar cells, and with specially designed flashlight-size D cells included, the rover will allow researchers to determine the mineral makeup of martian soil. Traveling at nearly 12 feet per hour, the vehicle won't break land speed records. But its ability to find its way to a target once scientists on Earth tell it what to look at will allow researchers to study martian rocks in their original formations for the first time. With the loss last week of Russia's Mars 96 mission, which consisted of an orbiter and probes to puncture the Martian surface, Mars Pathfinder represents the only hope of putting sensors on the planet for the next three years. …

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