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Mars Pathfinder scientists optimistic despite setbacks

Mars Pathfinder scientists are confident the spacecraft will continue to function even though its battery appears to have finally run out and the spacecraft may have lost track of time.

Mission managers believe Pathfinder will continue to operate on solar power and that any suggestions the lander is finished are premature."There's still a lot of life left in Pathfinder," Project Manager Brian Muirhead told a briefing Thursday at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which runs the remote-controlled exploration of Mars.

The Pathfinder sent a rudimentary signal but no telemetry to Earth on Thursday, and engineers trying to solve the communications problem believe its battery may be to blame.

The clock tells the spacecraft when to wake up for communication with Earth and when other functions should occur. But all that takes energy, so functions need to be timed to occur when there's enough sunlight on the solar panels to support the load.

Muirhead said resolving the problem could take a couple of weeks. He also noted that other possible reasons for the problem have not been ruled out, including the possibility that the primary transmitter itself is not working.

Pathfinder was silent for three days before controllers got it to radio a "beacon" signal to Earth through its auxiliary transmitter on Wednesday and again Thursday.

Pathfinder, carrying the little rover Sojourner, landed on Mars on July 4. They have long outlasted their primary missions - 30 days for the lander and a week for the rover.

The rover's batteries also have worn down, and its operation already has been reoriented to daytime, when solar energy is available.