In “The Martian,” when astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on the Red Planet, he turns to an old NASA mission for help. He travels to an ancient floodplain called Ares Vallis, where he grabs Mars Pathfinder. Later, he uses the parts to contact Earth and help arrange his rescue.
“The Martian” is fiction, but Pathfinder was real. The lander and rover touched down on Mars 25 years ago today, and operated for almost three months. It was the first landing on Mars in two decades, and the first rover on any other planet.
Pathfinder was designed mainly to test out new technologies for landing and operating on Mars. The craft bounced to a halt inside a cocoon of airbags, for example.
Yet Pathfinder also carried scientific instruments, on both the lander and the rover, which was named Sojourner. The rover weighed about 25 pounds and was the size of a microwave oven. In all, it traveled roughly the length of a football field.
It measured the composition of the rocks and soil, and found that liquid water had once flowed across the surface. And it demonstrated that a rover could be guided along the Martian surface, setting the stage for more-capable machines in the future.
The lander monitored the weather and snapped more than 16,000 pictures. They revealed clouds of water ice in the early morning, and dust devils twirling across the desert landscape later in the day — a quarter of a century ago.
Script by Damond Benningfield