Year in Review: 1997


Re-rank the list of top news stories of 1997


Find out more about:

Princess Diana's death stuns the world

Weld steps out -
Cellucci steps forward

Mother Teresa is laid
to rest at age 87

Chinese rule returns
to Hong Kong

Supreme Court strikes
down 'Net decency act

UPS strike disrupts thousands of firms

Heaven's Gate cult commits mass suicide

Mars Pathfinder explores Red Planet

Ellen comes out, marking a first in TV

For the first time, a mammal is cloned

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Scientists say a bittersweet goodbye

By David L. Chandler, Globe Staff, 12/10/97

It has been a remarkable demonstration of NASA's new way of doing business, and the inexpensive and rapidly-built Mars Pathfinder far exceeded its designed lifetime and achieved all its planned primary scientific goals and then some.

Still, the scientists in charge of the mission had hoped it would last even longer and accomplish more. And some scientists are questioning whether the space agency's ``cheaper, faster, better'' approach will be adequate for all they hope to achieve in future missions.

Nobody questions Pathfinder's spectacular success in demonstrating an ingenious, bouncy new way of landing on a planet, cushioned by airbags, and its successful deployment of the first moving vehicle ever sent across another planet's surface. But in a commentary in last week's Nature, some scientists questioned whether the mission had really produced much worthwhile scientific information.

``Pathfinder's most intriguing results remain ambiguous, partly because of the limited capability of low-cost instruments,'' said the Nature analysis. For example, it said, photographs show rocks that appear to be conglomerates, formed by the long-term action of water, but the resolution is not quite sharp enough to prove it.

But as the Pathfinder team assembled last week for the final press conference of the mission, which has not responded to radio commands from Earth for over a month, the scientists were glowing with pride at what their $200 million spacecraft had achieved -- and eagerly anticipating the work that remains to be done to analyze the flood of data that it sent back.

``We returned more information on a scientific understanding of Mars than anyone could have hoped or prayed,'' said the mission's chief scientist, Matthew Golombek. During 83 days of operation since its July 4 landing, it sent back 3 gigabits of data -- equivalent to about half of a set of the Encyclopedia Britanica -- that included 16,000 pictures, 8.5 million temperature, wind and pressure measurements, and 20 chemical analyses of soil and rock, he said.

These included the first full-color, three dimensional panorama of another planet's surface -- images which the team said will eventually be made into a 3-D IMAX movie of the site. Pictures were also taken with 17 special filters that should help scientists to identify different types of rock and soil.

The rolling, water-scoured terrain strewn with a variety of rocks gives clear testimony to a past wracked by floods more massive than anything seen on Earth since humanity's ancestors descended from the trees. ``These data say there was a different climate'' on ancient Mars, Golombek said -- something scientists had known but never seen so dramatically illustrated. ``Could life have developed if liquid was stable for a long period? That's one of the most fundamental questions'' -- one that won't be answered by this mission or those in the next few years.

But the evidence provided by Pathfinder's images and rock analyses may help. While it has been clear for more than two decades that Mars once had a water-rich and warm climate, the big question has been how long such an environment lasted. Preliminary analysis of the rock composition data, the images of dried-up puddles on the surface, and the magnetic dust particles seen on magnets attached to the lander all suggest that the warm, wet climate did indeed last for many millions of years.

The lander's weather measurements provided surprising signs that the Martian winds can produce amazingly rapid variations in temperature and that eddies and ``dust devils'' are commonplace. But the scientists were disappointed that they didn't get to observe and measure the onset of Mars' season of sometimes-global dust storms, which should be getting underway now.

``I had hoped to see the dust storms roll in,'' said Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, head of the team that built Pathfinder's camera.

Among the other things the scientists had hoped to accomplish but will not be able to unless communications are miraculously restored are weather measurements through the change of seasons, and a chemical analysis of the magnetic dust that stuck to the lander. Also, while the mission did prove for the first time that Mars has a metallic core like Earth's, further studies of the planet's motions could have established whether that core is liquid or solid -- something that will have to await another mission.

But deputy mission manager Brian Muirhead said the mission's success had pointed the way for future missions: ``It set the tone for the future of space exploration,'' he said.

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