More than 170-million miles from home in the chill, dusty badlands of the Ares Valley on Mars, the Pathfinder lander sits idle, waiting for instructions from home. About 30 feet away, the pint-size rover Sojourner, like a lost child naively confidant of rescue, is probably circling the mothership slowly, clockwise, awaiting a signal that may never come.
The thrills of summer, when the space probes bounced triumphantly onto the surface of the Red Planet, have turned to autumnal silence, as hope fades that communications with the intrepid robots can ever be restored. They are thought to be suffering from extreme cold.
The last contact was Oct. 7. Since then, controllers have almost exhausted potential solutions, according to mission manager Richard Cook of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. "The odds are dimming rapidly that we'll be able to get anything back."
Pathfinder's handlers knew this day would come. The lander's primary mission was officially a month long; the rover's a week. Based on their early success, the team had anticipated the robots might keep working much longer. Engineers had predicted, however, that eventually the stress of the harsh Martian temperatures would cause something to fail.
Now, according to project manager Brian Muirhead, the possibility exists that an "unrecoverable problem" has occurred.