Mars Pathfinder was NASA's second low-cost planetary discover program, aimed to promote the use of low-cost spacecraft and increase the frequency of space missions under the motto 'cheaper, faster, and better'. It consisted of a stationary lander and Sojourner rover, both programed to execute some experiments on the surface of planet Mars.
Mars Pathfinder Mission Facts
Mars Pathfinder was launched on December 4, 1996, aboard the launch vehicle Delta II. After a seven-month voyage, it reached Mars on July 4, 1997. It landed in 'Ares Vallis', the northern hemisphere of Mars, one of the rockiest areas on the surface of the planet. This area was chosen for landing because of the wide variety of rock deposits found there, presumably deposited during a catastrophic flood experienced by the planet in the past. The landing site was later named The Carl Sagan Memorial Station as a tribute to the American astronomer, Carl Sagan.
This mission had scientific as well as technological objectives. On the scientific front, it was aimed to examine the surface morphology, geology, petrology, geochemistry, magnetic properties, and the atmospheric structure of the planet. On the other hand, its technological objectives were to prove that it was possible to develop a faster, better, and cheaper spacecraft, which could be developed within 3 years under a budget of $150 million and the possibility of sending scientific instruments to other planets at a very low cost. This mission also made a statement about NASA's commitment to low-cost planetary exploration.
The Sojourner rover, sent to Mars as a part of the Mars Pathfinder mission, was the first rover to be actually deployed on another planet. It was named in honor of Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist of the 19th century. The rover had an embedded computer with an 100 KHz Intel 80C85 CPU, 512 KB of RAM, and 176 KB of solid-state flash memory storage. The scientific instruments on the Sojourner included an imaging system with 3 cameras, laser stripers, accelerometers, and potentiometers. In this three-month long mission, the Sojourner examined the elements found in rocks and the soil on Mars, while the lander took the pictures and collected climatic data.
In its three-month exploration period between its landing and final data transmission, Mars Pathfinder collected and sent enormous amount of information about Mars back to the Earth. The data included 16,500 images and climatic observations from the lander, plus 55 images from the rover along with its chemical analysis of rocks and soil found on Mars. With the investigations carried out in this mission, scientists concluded that Mars had been a warm and wet planet in the past, with water existing on the planet in its liquid state. Technologically, it also proved to be a base for concepts such as airbag-mediated touchdown and automated obstacle avoidance.
Although, it was anticipated to be a seven-day mission, it spanned almost 84 days. The final contact with the Pathfinder was done on September 27, 1997. Sojourner was awarded honorary membership in the Planetary Geology Division of the Geological Society of America on October 21, 1997. In 2003, it was inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame.
As the cost of development and construction of the lander and rover was $150 million and $25 million respectively, the approximate cost of the Mars Pathfinder mission came to a total of just $265 million. With its low cost and the enormous amount of information it provided, this mission truly marked the success of NASA's 'Discovery Program', implemented by Daniel S. Goldin with a vision for 'faster, better, and cheaper' planetary missions.