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NASA Bound for Mars Again

WASHINGTON, D.C.--NASA hopes the third try will be the charm for the launch of Mars Pathfinder. High winds scrubbed the first attempt on Monday, and a computer glitch halted the second yesterday morning. The software snafu is solved, says a NASA spokesperson, and Pathfinder is scheduled to try again at 1:58 a.m. on Wednesday (4 December).

If all goes well, the spacecraft will land on what scientists believe is an ancient Martian flood plain on 4 July 1997. During its descent, a suite of instruments will measure the Red Planet's atmospheric pressure, temperature, and density. Afterward, a robotic rover named Sojourner will explore the surface. Says NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, "It's like sending a 22-pound geologist to Mars."

Sojourner is equipped with a spectrometer to identify the composition of surface rocks and several cameras to shoot the terrain. It is designed to explore the surface for at least seven Martian days (each about 24 1/2 hours long). The lander, too, has a camera and atmospheric instruments, and should collect data for at least 30 Martian days.

Pathfinder is the last of three spacecraft to blast off toward Mars in less than a month. NASA's Mars Global Surveyor launched on 7 November and should reach the planet next September. Russia's Mars '96 launched on 17 November, but the rocket malfunctioned, and it crashed the next day in the Pacific Ocean. NASA has until 31 December to launch Pathfinder. After that, the planets are not aligned for a viable launch until December 1998.