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Press Release 95-26

Lori J. Rachul
(Bus: 216/433-8806)


CLEVELAND, OH -- NASA Lewis Research Center's Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio, is hosting tests of the airbag landing gear system that will provide the Mars Pathfinder with a soft, upright landing when it encounters the rugged terrain of Mars in 1997.

Mars Pathfinder is the first mission in the Discovery Program, a NASA initiative for small planetary missions with a maximum three-year development cycle and development cost cap of $150 million (FY 1992). The mission is primarily an engineering demonstration of key technologies and concepts for eventual use in future missions to Mars employing scientific landers. The project is being managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif.

In the past, spacecraft landings have been softened by retrorockets, which fire intermittently toward a planet's surface. While retrorockets are effective, they are known to leave trace amounts of foreign chemicals on the surface. Since one objective of this mission is to analyze the elemental composition of Martian rocks and soil, another method of landing had to be developed to avoid contaminating samples.

The NASA-designed airbag landing gear system, manufactured by ILC Dover, Dover, Del., is composed of 24 interconnected spheres that will cushion the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft upon impact with the Martian surface. The pyramid-shaped airbag system, which measures 17-feet tall and 17-feet in diameter, is fabricated of materials similar to those used in spacesuits.

The airbag system has undergone a series of rigorous tests for the past forty-five days in Plum Brook's Space Power Facility, the world's largest vacuum chamber. According to JPL's Tom Rivellini, cognizant engineer for the airbag system, testing the system in a simulated Martian environment is essential.

"When the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft enters the Martian atmosphere, it will be traveling between 60-90 miles per hour. A parachute and rocket braking system will slow the spacecraft, while the airbag system will protect it when it impacts the surface," he explained. "The Space Power Facility is enabling us to test the airbag system in the atmospheric conditions it will be subjected to when it reaches Mars."

The airbag system has been tested on numerous terrains ranging from flat surfaces to steep, rocky inclines. Robert Kozar, NASA's chief of the Plum Brook Management Office, said that he is impressed with the system's performance.

"Ground testing of the airbag landing gear system under simulated Martian conditions is critical to the risk reduction process. The Plum Brook test data already indicates the design concept is good, but optimization of the final design still needs to be done to improve safety margins. Additional testing later this year will validate the final design," Kozar said.

When it reaches Mars, the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft will deliver scientific instruments to the planet's surface to investigate the structure of the Martian atmosphere, surface meteorology, surface geology, form, and structure. In addition, a free-ranging surface rover will be deployed to conduct technology experiments and to serve as an instrument deploying mechanism.

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