The MarsRoom is a unique environment at JPL. The floor of the room is covered with sand and littered with rocks. This arrangement allows Mars Pathfinder engineers and scientists to run operational tests and simulations "end-to-end", and understand how all the components of this complex spacecraft work together. This includes using the Imager for Mars Pathfinder to acquire images, as it will do on Mars, for guiding the Rover in its operations. Similarly, the Rover will take pictures of the lander and its surroundings so that Rover engineers can also conduct their own operational tests (driving around the landscape, avoiding obstacles, etc.).
Although we cannot duplicate Martian gravity,temperature, winds, lighting, and other factors, the configuration can be set to challenge the engineers and the equipment, and enable them to run many operational tests before the mission arrives at Mars. We will be ready to face almost anything!
This engineering model of Pathfinder is real in almost every respect. Most everything on it functions just as it will on Mars. In the center of the picture, you can see the Rover sitting on the petal waiting to drive down on the "surface". Toward the right, the white structure you see is the "brains" of the spacecraft, the enclosure where the electronics would normally reside. In this case, however, we have the "brains" in the next room, in our Test Bed. They are connected by cables running through the wall to the spacecraft.
The Rover is also correct in almost every aspect of its construction. However, because of the light levels which are not correct for Mars, it has no solar panel, and uses a small fan that can be seen on its top to help cool the electronics while it is operating. The Rover also communicates to the lander "brains" in the Test Bed via its UHF radio link. The cables you can see snaking along the floor are connected to a Solar Panel Simulator that is used to feed the correct amount of power to the Rover, just as if it were on Mars and using the light levels there. Another cable powers the fan.
All these arrangements allow Mars Pathfinder and Rover engineers to continue running tests and simulations on the spacecraft, exactly as if it were July of this year. For example, the "brains" of the spacecraft residing in the Test Bed are currently being told that Pathfinder is cruising toward Mars. Each time the Mars Pathfinder team conducts and Operational Readiness Test (ORT), data is fed into the spacecraft computer telling it that it is decelerating through the martian atmosphere, radar contact with the surface is being acquired, and the parachute, bridle and airbags are being deployed. The computer in turn responds with the correct sequence of events, just as planned. Later on, different factors will be fed into the "brains" to test how it responds to various conditions it might encounter at Mars.
Check back often as a lot will be happening over the next few months!
Back to the Mars Pathfinder Home Page.