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Mars Pathfinder: An arrival not a landing

July 6, 1997: Using an air brake, parachute, retro-rockets and air bags, Pathfinder bounced-down intact, on time, and on target to complete the first space flight direct to Mars. Direct, that is, to the Martian surface without orbiting either Earth or Mars during the journey. With this mission, NASA has proved that, whatever its detractors may say, it is still a can-do-something-extremely-complicated agency. Moreover, NASA has shown that it can now prepare such a mission in one third the time required for past Mars missions and at a quarter the cost. At one-quarter of a billion dollars, the price for determining the composition of a few rocks may seem high. But at only a dollar per head, most Americans will likely consider it a reasonable price to celebrate Independence Day 97. As the cost of expanding a new frontier for human exploration and, perhaps, eventual colonization, the mission may prove cheap.

But NASA is contemplating a more distant frontier, it was revealed at a July 4 press conference. It has embarked on a 20- to 25-year project with the goal of launching a basketball sized package on 40-year journey to Alpha-Centauri, the star closest to the Sun. The package would be accelerated to over one tenth the speed of light using the gravitational pulls of both Jupiter and the Sun, passing in the process within a few hundred thousand kilometers of the Sun's surface.

Beside a highly effective heat shield, such an interstellar probe will require an advanced computer system able to pack great power in a small container. NASA has, therefore, decided to go into the computer chip business. "We want to violate Moore's Law" said NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, referring to the rule of thumb that computer power doubles every 18 months. With immensely fast computer chips the space agency could trim the weight of space probes and increase their degree of automatic control.


Links:

NASA: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov
Info on Pathfinder: http://mpfwww.jpl.nasa/gov/default.html
Mars information: http://www.seds.org/billa/tnp/mars.html
Space Research News: http://www.flatoday.com



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