Skip Navigation: Avoid going through Home page links and jump straight to content

Mars Pathfinder Science Results
October 8, 1997 Press Conference


Mars is appearing more and more like a planet that was very
Earth-like in its' infancy, with weathering processes and flowing water that
created a variety of rock types and a warmer atmosphere that generated
clouds, winds and seasonal cycles.

Those observations, along with new images taken by the Mars
Pathfinder rover and lander, and an update on the condition of the
spacecraft, were presented at an Oct. 8 press briefing originating from
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"What the data are telling us is that the planet appears to have
water-worn rock conglomerates, sand and surface features that were created
by liquid water," said Dr. Matthew Golombek, Mars Pathfinder project
scientist at JPL. "If, with more study, these rocks turn out to be made of
composite materials, that would have required liquid water flowing on the
surface to round the edges in pebbles we see on the surface or explain how
they were embedded in larger rocks. That would be a very important finding."

Golombek also stressed the amount of differentiation -- or
heating, cooling and recycling of crustal materials -- that appears to have
taken place on Mars. "We're seeing a much greater degree of differentiation
-- the process by which heavier elements sink to the center of the planet
while lighter elements rise to the surface -- than we previously thought,
and very clear evidence that liquid water was stable at one time in Mars'

"Water, of course, is the very ingredient that is necessary to
support life," he added, "and that leads to the $64,000 question: Are we
alone in the universe? Did life ever develop on Mars? If so, what happened
to it and, if not, why not?"

Dr. William Folkner, an interdisciplinary scientist at JPL,
presented data on the rotation and orbital dynamics of Mars, which are being
obtained from two-way ranging and Doppler tracking of the lander as Mars
rotates. Measurements of the rate of change in Mars' spin axis have
important implications for learning more about the density and mass of the
planet's interior. Eventually, scientists may be able to determine whether
Mars' core is presently molten or fluid. The size of the core also can be
used to characterize the thickness, or radius, of Mars' mantle.

"By measuring the spin axis of Mars, we can learn something about
the interior of the planet, because the speed of the change in its
orientation is related to how the mass is distributed inside," Folkner said.
"If the core is fluid, its spin and the way in which the planet wobbles
slightly will be different from the spin and wobble of a planet with a solid

"If Mars' core is solid, then it can't be less than about 1,300
kilometers (807 miles) in radius, out of the planet's total radius of 3,400
kilometers (2,112 miles)," Folkner added. "If the core is made up of
something less dense than iron, if it's a mixture of, say, iron and sulfur,
then the core would be bigger, but it couldn't be bigger than about 2,000
kilometers (1,242 miles) in radius."

New close-up images of dunes around the landing site are showing
some scientists clear evidence that there is sand on the surface of Mars.
Identification of sand, as opposed to dust or pebbles, is a significant
factor in establishing that weathering processes such as erosion, winds and
flowing water all contributed to Mars' present landscape.

"We've made significant progress in establishing that water was a
dominant agent in forming the surface, and now we can say that there is
another agent at work, and that is the wind, that has created and modified
some of the landforms on a smaller and medium scale," said Dr. Wes Ward of
the U.S. Geological Survey, Flagstaff, AZ, a member of the Imager for Mars
Pathfinder team. "And because the water is no longer there, wind probably is
the dominant agent shaping the Martian surface at this moment."

Ward showed images of Ares Vallis, taken by the rover and Viking
1 orbiter images to point out the structural difference in these surface
features. While Viking 1 surface features around a rock nicknamed "Big Joe"
showed drifts, the dune-like surfaces in the Ares Vallis flood basin
resemble sand that has been blown southwest over the landing site. The
presence of sand also points to the likely presence of liquid water, needed
to create these small, 1-millimeter-diameter granules, and weathering agents
such as wind to blow them into small ridges and moats present around the
Ares Vallis rocks.

"The wind is quite an active agent," Ward said. "Sand is the
smoking gun, and as far as I'm concerned, the gun is smoking and has Colonel
Mustard's prints all over it. We are seeing sand at the landing site."

  [Image]  Dr. Greg Wilson, of Arizona State University, who is on the
Pathfinder atmospheric experiment team, reported increases in the pressure
of the Martian atmosphere and a drop in surface temperatures.

"We expect to see a continued increase in pressure and decrease
in temperatures as the dust season approaches and winds begin to lift more
dust into the Martian atmosphere," he said. "The dust season on Mars usually
begins in the next few weeks."

Return to Science Results Directory

Mars Pathfinder Home Page