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Press Release 96-62

Sally V. Harrington
NASA Lewis Research Center
(Bus: 216/433-2037)


CLEVELAND, OH—While Clevelanders enjoy July 4th festivities next year, three NASA Lewis Research Center-designed and built experiments will celebrate American independence in historic fashion. As part of the Mars Pathfinder mission, the experiments will land on the Red Planet to investigate the Martian environment and its effect on robotic surface exploration systems.

Mars Pathfinder is scheduled to launch from Kennedy Space Center atop a Delta rocket on Dec. 2, 1996.

The NASA Lewis experiments housed on Pathfinder’s free-ranging rover called Sojourner will pave the way for future missions to confirm or disprove that life once existed on Mars. Two of the experiments will measure Martian dust and its effect on power-generating solar cells. Another experiment will determine the abrasive effects of the Mars surface materials.

NASA Lewis engineers also developed what have been called the world’s smallest lightening rods—two tiny wires designed to remove any electrostatic charge that will build up as the rover travels along in the very dry Martian environment.

The NASA Lewis team applied recently developed technology in new ways in order to create experiments that would be ideally suited to the rover. The team designed, built, tested and delivered the experiment hardware in about 14 months.

With the NASA Lewis experiments onboard, the 22-pound rover—much like a large, six-wheeled version of a radio-controlled car you could purchase at a toy store—will roam around Mars, scooping up dirt, taking pictures and generally exploring the planet.

"Since the rover is a relatively small machine [75 centimeters long by 32 centimeters wide] with very limited resources in terms of weight, power, computational capabilities and data rates, the experiments must be of correspondingly low mass, power consumption, etc., thus making the design concepts quite challenging," said Steve Stevenson, a member of the Systems Engineering Office, who leads the NASA Lewis Mars Pathfinder microrover and experiment project.

Mars Pathfinder will be the first mission in the Discovery Program, a NASA initiative for small, unmanned planetary missions with a maximum three-year development cycle and a development cost cap of $150 million. Mars Pathfinder is being managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA.

Pathfinder will deliver scientific instruments to the surface of Mars to investigate the composition of the Martian atmosphere; surface meteorology; surface geology; and the form, structure and elemental composition of Martian rocks and soil.

"The mission is primarily an engineering demonstration of key technologies and concepts for eventual use in future missions to Mars employing scientific landers," Stevenson said.

NASA Lewis’ involvement in the Mars Pathfinder mission extends beyond the three experiments housed on the rover. Over the past year, NASA Lewis’ Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, OH, hosted tests of the innovative air bag landing system that will protect the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft and its payload upon impact with the Martian surface.

The $4 million landing system, designed by JPL, was dropped on numerous terrains, from flat surfaces to steep, rocky inclines in a simulated Martian atmosphere created in Plum Brook’s Space Power Facility, the world’s largest vacuum chamber. While initial single-layered designs could not survive the jagged rocks, testing enabled the JPL team to perfect a multi-layered design that they are confident will do the job.

Note: Media interested in attending the Dec. 2, 1996, launch of Mars Pathfinder at Kennedy Space Center should call the NASA Lewis Media Relations Office.

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