A Reluctant Goodbye to Pathfinder

After almost a month of fruitless calls to Pathfinder on Mars, mission engineers are halting their round-the-clock efforts to resuscitate the lander. "I guess it's a reluctant goodbye," said mission manager Richard Cook at a press conference today at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Pathfinder engineers who had reassembled for the rescue effort are disbanding once again, and hopeful wake-up calls will be sent to the lander only twice a month.

Normal operations mysteriously ended 29 September when Pathfinder stopped sending back data. Cook and his engineers can't diagnose the lander's problem, but the leading theory is that its battery failed suddenly. That would have made the lander lose track of time and try to transmit to Earth when not enough power is available from its solar panels. Without heat from the transmitter warming its innards, the lander would have chilled to -50 degrees Celsius, says Cook, with lethal damage to the electronics likely.

Rather than getting funereal in Pasadena, team members are giving the lander an Irish-style wake. "We came to praise Pathfinder," said project manager Brian Muirhead of JPL, "not to bury her." The eulogy recounted 3 gigabits of data, including 16,000 images snapped while the rover rambled over more than 200 square meters of martian terrain and got up close and personal with numerous rocks. Indeed, Sojourner rover may still be roaming about the lander each day as the rising sun powers it back up to try to reestablish contact. But after a couple months, when Sojourner's solar cells wear out, it too will sleep.