with Simon Mansfield

NASA Bids Pathfinder Good-Bye
By Frank Sietzen
Washington, DC March 11, 1998 - Out in the cold and dark between worlds NASA scientists listened in vain Tuesday for a sign that the tiny Mars Pathfinder lander was still alive on the dusty red planet. But after four hours of waiting in vain, space officials declared the historic mission over. "The official 'Time of Death' was 1:21pm PST", said Jennifer Harris at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Harris was one of the original Pathfinder mission Flight Directors. And while most of her team had long ago been disbursed to other projects, Harris was present Tuesday when the last attempt at contacting the craft was made.

But there was no last word from the Pathfinder's landing craft, and space officials say they now believe that both primary and backup transmitters have died, and the little Sojourner Rover that so caught the world's attention has gone to sleep for good after circling the lander, waiting in vain to hear from its masters on the blue planet so far away. It was the lander that contacted the Rover, so without a working lander, Sojourner was programmed to circle the craft to await instructions. But none would ever come again.

The historic space mission that began on July 4, 1997 lasted more than 83 days, some three times longer than designs called for. No word had been heard from the craft's main transmitter since Sept. 27th. One brief, fleeting carrier signal was detected on Oct. 1st and Oct. 6th, but all had been silent since.

On Tuesday's try, space scientists used the big 34-meter Deep Space Network antenna at the Goldstone Tracking Station in California during a tracking pass when two-way contact with Mars was possible. Flight controllers commanded the lander's main transmitter on, and then sat back awaiting a signal confirmation. But after an hour of silence, controllers then sent orders for the lander to power up its backup auxiliary transmitter. Had the effort worked, the confirmation would have been a tiny, single "blip" on controller's computer screens. But after four hours, no word from Mars was received.

NASA then decided that the historic voyage had come to an end. Millions from around the world - and many on this news service - followed the adventures of the Pathfinder and Sojourner combo last summer on a space mission that caught the attention of the world as had no other since Apollo 11 in the hot summer of 1969. When the end came Tuesday, many were moved by their experiences with the mission, which cost about the same to U.S. taxpayers as the Pentagon spends each year on copypaper. "To the Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner Rover, I say 'thank-you and a job well done', " said Harris, speaking for all of the Pathfinder's earthly fans.


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