PASADENA, Calif. (AP) - Just try and find somebody who hasn't seen at least some of the stunning alien landscapes sent back by the Mars Pathfinder mission.
Within 24 hours of its Independence Day landing, Pathfinder had shown us a 360-degree panorama of a rocky desert landscape that looks remarkably like California's Death Valley.
And it dispatched Sojourner, the first remote-controlled rover to roam another planet, on its slow-motion tour.
Not too shabby for a collection of machinery that bounced to a landing inside a protective cocoon of balloons.
"We now are gaining some scientific and engineering comfort and confidence in how we go about exploring the surface of Mars," said Larry Soderblom, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz.
It's the first time a spacecraft has visited Mars since the nation's bicentennial, when the twin Viking landers snapped the first photographs ever taken on the martian surface.
Pathfinder's snapshots look remarkably similar to Viking's.
But to geologists, Pathfinder's new home is an entirely new world.
"We have a much wider variety of materials at the landing site than we had at either of the Viking sites," said project scientist Matthew Golombek.
According to NASA's plan, which really called more for an engineering demonstration than a scientific expedition, Sojourner's mission was supposed to wind up Friday and the lander was to last only until early August.
But things are going so well that engineers expect the rover to keep going for months and the lander to last a year or more.
"We're going to get a lot of months of gravy," Spear said.
Pint-sized Sojourner is the mission's star, wheeling about at a comically slow two feet a minute and planting its chemical analyzer - the alpha proton X-ray spectrometer - on rocks that scientists named "Barnacle Bill" and "Yogi."
And while Pathfinder photographed panoramas, Sojourner's camera produced what one space pundit called a "chihuahua's-eye view" of Mars.
Pathfinder didn't just send us pretty postcards, though. The data it is collecting will increase our understanding of an alien world.
Researchers have found signs of ancient flooding, measured temperatures - daytime readings of about zero to 10 above Fahrenheit - comparable to what you'd expect in Minnesota on Groundhog Day and seen rocks remarkably similar to those found in the mountains of Peru or the Pacific Northwest.
By 2005, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to pluck a rock from Mars, return it to an Earth laboratory, and give it the kind of going over a rover could never accomplish.
"We've got a long-range program all laid out," said Norman Haynes, director of the Mars Exploration Directorate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Pathfinder's gone a long way toward getting us down the road toward an eventual exploration of Mars."
In the meantime, we can't seem to get enough of Pathfinder's pretty pictures.
At last count, NASA's Pathfinder page on the Web and its various mirror or duplicate sites had recorded more than 260 million "hits." That's one for every person in the United States. Or one for every dollar spent on the mission.
"It's obvious that we have engaged the public in Mars exploration," said program manager Tony Spear. "I wished I had charged everybody a dollar."
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