Mars orbiter spots 1997 landing site

/ Source: The Associated Press

he newest spacecraft circling Mars has spotted the landing site of the 1997 Pathfinder probe, including what appears to be its discarded protective shell and parachute, and possibly its rover Sojourner.

The view beamed back by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter should give scientists details about Pathfinder's descent and the mission's final days.

In one of the high-resolution images taken last month, Pathfinder's mobile sidekick Sojourner appeared to have rolled closer to the stationary lander, which sent its last transmission 12 weeks after landing.

Scientists were able to discern the lander's ramps and airbags as well as bright features that look like portions of its heat shield. The parachute and shell used by Pathfinder during the landing lie behind a hill.

"The new image provides information about Pathfinder's landing and should help confirm our reconstruction of the descent," said Rob Manning, Mars program chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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The Pathfinder site was previously photographed from space by other craft, but the Reconnaissance Orbiter, which entered orbit last year, sent the most detailed images yet.

Pathfinder captivated a worldwide television audience when it bounced to an Independence Day landing in 1997.

The mission lasted far longer than its planned lifetime of a month as the lander beamed back images of the rocky Martian terrain and took atmospheric measurements while the little rover analyzed soil samples.

Pathfinder sent its last transmission in September 1997. Scientists believe it might have suffered from temperature-related problems as a result of battery failure.

The airbag landing technique used by Pathfinder was also used by the twin NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which are still operating on the planet.