In FY 1997, DoE completed the fabrication and testing of three general purpose heat source radioisotope thermoelectric generators (GPHS-RTG) and 157 lightweight radioisotope heater units (LWRHU) for NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn. DoE provided launch support for NASA's Mars Pathfinder mission, which contained three DoE LWRHU's. DoE continued studies of advanced converter technologies to provide high-efficiency, lightweight power systems for future NASA missions.
When Mars Pathfinder crash-landed on Mars in July 1997, the impact was cushioned by air bags designed at DoE's Sandia National Laboratories. The work was part of a joint effort between Sandia and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to improve the feasibility of air bags for planetary probes. Sandia's nuclear weapon parachute technology served as the basis for proposing air bag configurations that had to be light enough to fit aboard Pathfinder, yet strong enough to withstand high vertical velocities, impacts, and horizontal wind velocities expected at the Martian surface.