In Focus

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

NASA's Mars Pathfinder space-craft is capturing far more data on the atmosphere, weather and geology of Mars than scientists had expected. In all, Pathfinder has returned about 1.2 gigabits (1.2 billion bits) of data and 9,699 pictures of the Martian landscape. A new portrait of the Martian environment has begun to emerge since Pathfinder and its small, 23-pound rover began to record weather patterns, atmospheric opacity and the chemical composition of rocks washed down into the Ares Vallis flood plain.

"We are seeing much more differentiation of volcanic materials than we expected to see," says Matthew Golombek, a scientist with the Mars Pathfinder project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He says that data from Pathfinder reveal that there was much more crustal activity -- heating and recycling of materials -- early in Mars' history than expected. Scientist now have clear evidence that the surface of Mars has been altered by winds and flowing water.

Scientists are also analysing the planet's global system of transporting volatiles such as water vapour, clouds and dust. The meteorology mast on the lander has observed a rapid drop in temperatures just a few feet above the surface. A 24-hour measurement set revealed temperature fluctuations of 30-40 Fahrenheit in a matter of minutes. Scientists believe that if the Pathfinder operates long enough, it might be able to collect data about how dust storms develop on Mars.

The Pathfinder was placed in a two-day hibernation period to recharge its battery after the conclusion of the primary mission, and the flight team now will begin to power the lander battery. Science data from the surface of Mars will continue to be collected and transmitted to Earth.

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