It was Independence Day 25 years ago when a small rover named after a Civil War abolitionist parachuted into the surface of the Red Planet on airbags.
NASA’s first-ever rover, named Sojourner, landed on Chryse Planitia on July 4, 1997 atop its lander, Pathfinder. The two spacecraft heralded a revolution in NASA’s Mars exploration technology Curiosity and Persistence the rovers continue to this day, a quarter of a century later.
The Pathfinder rover was called selected (opens in new tab) from a national contest won by Valerie Ambroise, 12, whose winning essay discussed the importance of Sojourner Truth, aka Isabella Van Wagener. (The essay winner now appears to be a Connecticut real estate agent.)
The rover’s namesake Sojourner spent nearly four months — 12 times longer than its design life — working on Mars: huddling next to rocks, analyzing their chemistry and relaying their observations back to Earth.
The results, broadcast in real time on early internet networks, showed a potentially habitable Red Planet: “The resulting scientific findings suggest that Mars was warm and wet in the past, with water existing in a liquid state and a thicker atmosphere.” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, which operates the rover, stated (opens in new tab) of the mission.
Today, Sojourner serves as an important solar-powered precursor to today’s much larger nuclear-powered NASA rovers: Curiosity (about to mark its 10th anniversary on Mars) and Perseverance (which landed on February 18, 2021 d., accompanied by the first ever Martian helicopter, Resourcefulness.)
These rovers are part of a generation-long network of landers, orbiters and other vehicles that explore the Red Planet to make sense of its complex history. Why did you say? Martian atmosphere thinned, how much water ran on the surface and whether habitable conditions questions that still preoccupy scientists today were present.
Twenty-five years ago today, a true pioneer landed. Sojourner proved we can drive on Mars; every rover since then has done real land exploration. I am the fifth in this line, collecting samples that could one day return to Earth and rewrite history. Forward. pic.twitter.com/ikLdrPOc7cJuly 4, 2022
The mission also served as a guiding light for public engagement. Today’s rover teams use tweets, TikTok and live-streamed events to announce new discoveries on Mars.
The much earlier internet of 1997 saw frequent photo uploads to the Pathfinder website, which is still sports its pre-millennium design today. NASA originally thought it would get 25 million downloads after landing; she quickly updated that estimate triple, the agency recalled (opens in new tab) in 2017. Traffic loads forced other agency servers to step in to avoid website crashes at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but it all worked.
Pathfinder proved so popular in public memory that it represented a crucial turning point in 2015.The Martian,” a Hollywood film (promoted by NASA and based on Andy Weir’s novel) about an astronaut who makes his way alone to the Red Planet after being stranded.
The mission made its last transmission in September. 27, 1997, leaving both Pathfinder and Sojourner silent on the surface, but its data will live on forever. NASA still has 16,500 images from Pathfinder and 550 images from Sojourner that modern scientists can analyze to gain new insights into the Red Planet’s history.