NASA tries for 3rd time to get Imager off ground

By Ana A. Lima
Arizona Daily Wildcat
December 4, 1996

The Associated Press
Arizona Daily Wildcat

A Delta II rocket successfully carries NASA's Mars Global Surveyor into orbit in this Nov. 7 file photo from Cape Canaveral, Fla. A last-minute computer failure delayed NASA's launch early yesterday of the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft carrying the first-ever interplanetary rover. Pathfinder should beat the slower Global Surveyor to Mars by two months, landing on July 4, 1997.


NASA tried for the third time early this morning to get the Imager from Mars Pathfinder, a $6 million stereoscopic camera built by a team of UA researchers, off the ground and on its way to the red planet.

The mission was originally scheduled to take off Monday at 2:09 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, but was postponed to 2:03 a.m. EST yesterday because of high winds in Florida. That launch attempt was also scrubbed due to a computer malfunction.

This morning, NASA again attempted to launch the rocket carrying Pathfinder. It was set to take off at 1:58 p.m. EST.

The camera is expected to land on Mars July 4, 1997. It will take thousands of photographs of Mars' atmosphere and mineralogy, and, if successful, will be the third robotic probe to land on the red planet. The first two were the Viking landers in 1976, which took the most recent pictures of Mars.

The Imager from Mars Pathfinder was built by a team of 14 members of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

On Sunday,12 members of the team, which included graduate and undergraduate students, were in Cape Canaveral, Fla. awaiting the Mars Pathfinder's launch.

"It's exciting to work on something that will operate on another planet," said Roger Tanner, optical sciences graduate student and member of the team that developed the Imager from Mars Pathfinder.

The Imager from Mars Pathfinder consists of a package that includes a stereo-multispectral camera to determine distance and color of objects, a magnetic properties targets device to determine the magnetic properties of minerals, and a windsock device to examine vertical distribution of winds on Mars.

The instrument is attached to a Delta rocket. Together, the Imager and rocket form the Mars Pathfinder, said Devon Crowe, senior staff engineer at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and calibration manager for the Pathfinder.

"We're expecting to get a lot of detailed pictures of the surface of Mars," Crowe said.

The Pathfinder will be aided by NASA's Global Surveyor, which was launched Nov. 7. The Surveyor will assist the Pathfinder in photographing the planet. Although the Pathfinder is being launched about a month later, it will get to Mars faster because it is smaller and lighter.

Tanner said scientists are hoping the two probes will make simultaneous measurements of the planet. The Surveyor will look down on the atmosphere and take photographs while the Pathfinder photographs upward, Tanner said.

The first few days following the landing will be critical for researchers, since there is a chance that something might go wrong, cutting the mission short.

"Anything can go wrong," Crowe said. "There are all these risks."

Once the Pathfinder lands on Mars, the rover, which is a robotic transporter, will be raised five feet off the ground, and will photograph anything from the zenith to the planet's surface. When the camera sufficiently explores its surroundings, scientists will release it to photograph other spots on the planet.

"We want to take lots of pictures during the first days, before we deploy it," Tanner said.

Mars Pathfinder will concentrate on studying the morphology of the planet's atmosphere and its geology.

Newer technology and air bags will be used to operate and land the probe - a significant change from the way past probes have been operated, Crowe said.

According to Crowe, one of the objectives of the mission is to test the new method of landing with air bags.

The Delta rocket carrying the instrument will be slowed down as it approaches the planet's atmosphere to release the camera. Soon after that, balloons 6 feet in diameter will inflate in preparation for the big landing.

"It will bounce as high as a 10-story building," Crowe said.

Crowe described the Pathfinder mission as one of a series entitled "discovery mission programs." With this type of mission researchers are only allowed 35 months to design and prepare the project for launch. In addition, all costs for missions must not exceed $150 million.

"It was a very intense program," Crowe said.

"The camera was delivered on time. And we're doing that with much less money," Crowe said.

For the next seven months, until landing, scientists will be working on the operating commands that will be given to the camera as soon as it reaches Mars, he said.

"There's a lot of fine tuning that needs to be done," Tanner said.

The Lunar and Planetary Laboratory will also be working on other types of cameras to be utilized in space discovery in the future. A $100 million project underway called the Mars Volatiles and Climate Surveyor includes a camera with a microscope attached, and a robotic arm that will dig up icy soil near the south pole of Mars.