air bag
nothing A major-league bounce
In its quest to explore the universe more cheaply, NASA installed a $5-million air bag on the Pathfinder spacecraft,
This air bag system is being readied for
a drop test onto simulated Martian terrain.
pathfinder air bag system which is on its way to Mars. It will be the first spacecraft to reach the planet since the 1970s.

On July 4, 1997, Pathfinder will approach Mars, looking for an old, rocky floodplain. (While Mars has no liquid water today, liquid water in the past has shaped much of its terrain.)

The thin Martian atmosphere is still thick enough to slow the spacecraft through friction. When Pathfinder gets closer, a big parachute and three rocket motors will freeze it in mid-air about 50 feet above the ground.

That's when the air bags take over -- four 17-foot diameter, 17-foot tall air bags will inflate.

Click on the small image to check out this movie of the
air bag test.

The bags fully
inflate in half a second, while
gas generators maintain a
constant pressure inside the bags.

Filmed by Jim Sims. Images courtesy Space Power Facility, NASA Lewis/Plum Brook Station.

pathfinder air bag system The bags are supposed to inflate with exhaust from three rocket motors. Then the lander will crash into Mars at 65 miles an hour, and probably bounce back a couple of times. When it comes to rest, a winch will draw in the air bags and stow them out of the way.

At least, that's the plan.

We wanted to ask the engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory about the air bags, but they must have been busy, as they didn't respond to two calls and one e-mail. Maybe you'll have more luck in Pasadena. Read a detailed description of the landing site on Mars.

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