NASA’s Pathfinder Mars probe bounced onto the surface of the Red Planet on Friday and sent back its first eye-popping panoramas of a flat plain dotted with dark, jagged rocks.
Controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory celebrated as the probe with its robot explorer emerged from the airbags that cradled its descent and began working flawlessly, even better than in simulations.
“It’s so perfect,” Mars Exploration Manager Donna Shirley smiled. “Just perfect.”
After hitting Mars at 23.4 mph, Pathfinder bounced three times - reaching a height of 49 feet - rolled and then settled amid a field of tantalizing-looking rocks.
For the 150 engineers and scientists who worked on Pathfinder the landing was not just a physical feat, but practically a metaphysical one.
“This is nirvana,” Brian Muirhead, deputy project manager of Mars Pathfinder said only minutes after the first Earth machine to land on the Red Planet in 21 years signalled that it was alive and well. The 390-million-mile mission started on Dec. 4 with a launch from Cape Canaveral Air Station.
The only hitch Friday evening was an airbag that wouldn’t quite deflate in time and Pathfinder’s microwave-sized rover will not get an opportunity to wander around and look at rocks before today.
Most of the possible landing area on Mars was “pretty bland,” Shirley said. But somehow Pathfinder dropped down in the middle of a black pocked-mark stripe of ejecta, iron-and-magnesium-tainted dirt thrown from a crater after a meteor strike long ago.
Pathfinder hit the motherlode for rockhounds.
“It’s a paradise for geologists,” said Gerry Soffen, the chief scientist for the 1976 Viking missions. “They’ve got everything they could possibly want. They’ve got light stuff. They’ve got dark stuff. I’m just spellbound by this.”
“It’s just a charmed mission,” Soffen said.
When the first pictures showed up, mostly just to show things were OK, it looked as though the probe was surrounded by large jagged rocks, a virtual minefield of hazards. And yet Pathfinder was almost completely flat, tilting at about 2 degrees. Engineers before landing had expected an angle of at least 10 degrees.
The first photos from Mars came 119 million miles to Earth and onto television screens over the strains of the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” and even louder whoops from an exuberant flight control team.
After planning for nearly every possible problem, the $196 million probe landed so smoothly that it was even able to send back an “I’m OK” signal minutes after it landed. Mission controllers had hoped for the signal but doubted it would happen. Everything would have to be ideal for faint semaphore from Pathfinder to make it back to Earth.
Fists pumped in the air. Mission manager Tony Spear jumped up and down, and then hugged someone, and someone else, and someone else. The hugs continued into the night.
“We’re very happy up here,” dead-panned Flight System Chief Engineer Rob Manning.
“Let’s go home,” one engineer joked.
There was no topping this feeling - until a few minutes later.
Each Pathfinder milestone was marked with more perfection, more amazement, and more hugs and handshakes.
By the middle of the day - far before any of the first photos showed up - Muirhead had shaken hands so many times that he said, “my forearm is tired.”
“I’m ecstatic, absolutely ecstatic,” Muirhead said. “I can’t be any more excited than I am.”
Vice President Al Gore called Muirhead and NASA boss Dan Goldin to say the landing was “a very exciting and historic moment.”
Pathfinder is the first of a NASA armada to Mars. Another ship, Mars Global Surveyor, is on the way to circle and map the Red Planet. At least seven other missions are planned for the next eight years.
When Pathfinder’s rover - the first ever to move on another planet - gets moving, Soffen said, “it’s just going to get better.”
Graphic: The Sojourner