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Mars Pathfinder Nearing Its End

Pathfinder, the NASA spacecraft that landed on Mars on 4 July, appears to be in a coma, and unless radio contact is reestablished within 2 weeks, the mission must be abandoned, says flight director David Gruel of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Mission control at JPL hasn't heard from Pathfinder since 7 October, despite almost daily attempts to reestablish communication. Although the mission is funded through August 1998, communication time on NASA's Deep Space Network--the three telescopes that send and receive signals from distant spacecraft--is in heavy demand from other programs, such as the Jupiter orbiter Galileo and the Saturn-bound spacecraft Cassini.

The root of the problem may be a dead battery, drained by repeated charging and discharging. In principle, Pathfinder's solar panels should enable the craft to operate during the martian daytime, but crucial hardware appears to have broken down as a result of the battery failure. According to Gruel, battery power was used to keep the electronics of Pathfinder a little bit warmer than the ambient night temperatures of Mars, which are a chilling -73 degrees Celsius. If Pathfinder is indeed experiencing colder-than-normal temperatures, some vital parts may have failed.

Mars Pathfinder was designed for a nominal lifetime of 1 month and was well into its extended mission phase. Unfortunately, only about one-third of a high-resolution stereo panorama of the surrounding terrain has been completed, and a trip of the Sojourner rover--whose signals are relayed through Pathfinder--to a distant ridge had not yet begun. But when the sad news of Pathfinder's death must finally be announced, says Gruel, "it will be like a funeral where a person is not mourned, but praised."