The first robot to rock and roll on Mars: Mars Pathfinder Mission

Learn about the first wheeled vehicle that made its way to the Red Planet.

September 20, 2022


Aleksandra Szczepaniak


How about some history lesson? Have you ever wondered what the first rover to touch down and travel on Mars was and when it happened? You’re about to find out :)

Sojourner Rover

The first wheeled vehicle to arrive on Mars and move around its grounds was the Mars Pathfinder's Sojourner Rover. It rolled onto the surface of the Red Planet on July 4, 1997.

The Sojourner rover on Mars
Sojourner on the soil of Mars next to "Yogi" rock
credit: Wikipedia

The Sojourner was a six-wheeled vehicle that was remotely controlled by an operator on Earth. The mission of the rover was to collect information about the soil and rocks of Mars. The gathered data was significant for designing better robotics rovers for future missions.

Interestingly, Sojourner wasn’t that different from Leo Rover in terms of dimensions. The former was 48 cm (19-inch) wide, 65 cm (26-inch) long and 30 cm (12-inch) high, whereas the latter is approximately 43 cm (17-inch) wide, 45 cm (17-inch) long and 25 cm (9-inch) high. So, Sojourner was quite bigger but Leo Rover is equipped with a larger computer than the other robot was ;)

The course of the mission

The Mars Pathfinder mission lifted off on December 4, 1996, embarking on an eight-month voyage to the Red Planet. After the spacecraft touched down, the Sojourner rover, the size of a microwave oven, set its wheels on the red soil of Mars.

Both robots were designed to run for a set amount of time – the Pathfinder lander for one month, and the Sojourner for only one week. However, they were both functional for three months, collecting data on the atmosphere and climate of Mars, as well as the geology and interior of the planet. 

Both the lander and the rover were equipped with instruments for scientific observation and providing engineering data about the new technologies being displayed. Among them, there were instruments for analyzing the Martian climate, atmosphere, geology, soil, and rock. 

Mars Pathfinder entered the Red Planet's atmosphere using a novel method of such a procedure – to slow down the craft's descent, a parachute was deployed and then, a giant airbag system cushioned the impact. The lander then dropped on the surface, bouncing across the terrain for a few minutes before it rolled to a halt. 

View on Mars from the Pathfinder's lander
Mars view from the lander
Photo by NASA

Significance of the mission

The Mars Pathfinder was the first mission among a series of missions to the Red Planet to include rovers, and the first victorious lander since 1976 when the twin space probes – Vikings – touched down on Mars. Its success allowed for the invasion of the Red Planet. Eight other NASA robots have made their way to Mars in the past two decades, and five of them remain active to this day.

Aside from its scientific purposes, the Mars Pathfinder mission also served as a "proof-of-concept" for diverse technologies, including airbag landing and automated obstacle avoidance, which were both later used by the Mars Exploration Rover mission. The Mars Pathfinder also stood out for its tremendously low cost compared to other robotic space missions to the Red Planet.

Naming the rover

In order to pick a name for the rover, in March 1994, a student competition was held and lasted one year. Participants up to 18 years old from any country were to write an essay devoted to a heroine of their choice, describing her accomplishments and how they could be applied to the environment of Mars.

What mattered in singling out the best work was the quality of the paper, the aptness of the name for the rover as well as the contestant’s knowledge of the probe mission and the heroine. The winner was 12-year-old Valerie Ambroise of Bridgeport, Connecticut who proposed naming the Martian rover after Sojourner Truth – a 19th-century African-American abolitionist and women's rights activist.

Good old Earth

Come now, you thought Mars was the only place rovers could be used, didn't you? Don't feel bad, we hold no grudge ;) Hard to blame people for associating rovers mostly, if not only, with Mars when space conquering is always all over the news. 

The truth is that only a few rovers made their way to the Red Planet. In fact, it's here on Earth where rovers thrive as they are tested and customized for various use. Why Mars, when Earth provides a myriad of possibilities for rovers?

Take European Rover Challenge for example. It's the biggest space and robotics event of the Old Continent held annually in Poland, and it combines competitions of Martian rovers with technological and scientific demonstrations.

As a technical partner, we, at Leo Rover, have been supporting the contest since the 2020 edition. Check out our blog posts on ERC 2020 and 2021.

Another example of "Martian" rovers in action on Earth is the University Rover Challenge – the world's robotics contest for students. Each year, the URC takes place in the desert in Utah and it provides a great opportunity for students to design and create a new generation of Mars rovers that will partner with astronauts exploring the Red Planet in the future. 

Interestingly, back in 2013, the founders of our Leo Rover (Szymon, Julia and Aleksander) participated in the URC and came in second that year, which is mentioned in the following blog post of ours.

Leo Rover in a desert

All right, but let's put Mars aside. Rovers are much more than vehicles for outer space expeditions, you know. They can be applied in so many areas, serving so many purposes. See several interesting ways Leo Rover can be used to serve humanity. And don't get me wrong – I'm not trying to undermine the significance of the Mars Pathfinder Mission and how it affected the space and robotics industry. It was indeed a huge accomplishment for mankind. All I'm saying is that we shouldn't forget about rovers' achievements here on Earth as there are many ;)

Broaden your Martian knowledge

If space exploration is what you’re really into and reading about the first rover to safely land on Mars made you peckish for more, make sure to check out our article on other rovers that explored the Red Planet. But as mentioned, let's not forget that while we're pursuing to reach the stars, rovers have already shown what they can do on Earth ;)

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