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The U.S. is back on the Red Planet after a nearly 300-million-mile journey. NASA celebrated late Thursday afternoon when it landed its latest rover on Mars. The rover is designed to explore new areas of the planet and look for clues for past life there. Miles O'Brien joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the mission.
The U.S. is back on the Red Planet tonight, after a nearly 300 million-mile journey.
NASA celebrated late this afternoon, when it landed its latest rover on Mars. There's lots of excitement around NASA's most ambitious Mars project yet. The rover is designed to explore new areas of planet and look for clues to signs of past life there.
Just so you know, the temperature on Mars is a cool 81 degrees below zero.
Our Miles O'Brien has been watching it all closely. And he's with me now.
Hello again, Miles.
So, I was excited watching the video feed from NASA. Were you on the edge of your seat?
Always. Always, Judy.
It is always a great moment of joy when it happens. The team is so good. They make it look easy. But I guess we should remind everyone, this is, in fact, rocket science. It is extremely hard, what they did. NASA now is five for five in attempting to land rovers on the Red Planet.
This one, about the size of an SUV, all kinds of capability, nuclear-powered, and landed, threaded a needle in a very rugged part of Mars. The scientists like the rugged part. The engineers responsible for getting it on the ground safely would prefer a veritable parking lot. So there is always a struggle.
But they had new technology this go-round, a radar system, some imagery, which allowed them to pretty much do a bullseye in a rugged part of the planet. So, we're off to the races on Mars once again, Judy.
Threaded a needle. Well, that gives us a sense of how hard it was.
So, Miles, remind us what this is all about. We know it is looking eventually for some form of life that existed billions of years ago. But help us understand what it is.
I mean, basically if you look back to Pathfinder back in 1997, which demonstrated we could get there safely, and then the Opportunity and Spirit rovers in 2003, Curiosity in 2012, we have steadily been homing in on, first of all, locations where there is — was water, they believe, the scientists, confirmed that, then found places which not only had water, but had the — a habitable environment billions of years ago.
And now they are in a place where they think there is a reasonable shot at finding the remnants of organic material, biologic, organic material.
The rocks that are the age where Perseverance is right now, the Jezero Crater, we have rocks about the same age in Western Australia. And they have all kinds of evidence left over, very distinct evidence, of organic biological life.
And Perseverance will be trucking through this region. And if it sees things that look like Western Australian, you can bet the scientists are going to get pretty excited.
So, Miles, again, 300 million miles away. How hard is what they are trying to do now, not only to do it, but then get it back here?
Yes. Well, that's the thing. This is the first stage of a very ambitious, long-sought-after idea for NASA, a sample return mission.
So, Perseverance will go along, find some interesting samples. It will do some science on board. But as capable as this rover is, it is still kind of limited, how much you can do remotely on the surface of Mars all packed into a tiny rover.
So, ultimately, what it will do is drop a couple dozen samples on the surface. And in a few years to come, in partnership with the Europeans, a retriever rover will come to Mars and conduct basically an Easter egg hunt for the samples, pick them up. They get launched back to the Earth. And by the 2030s, we will have samples of Mars bedrock back on Earth, which will allow scientists to tease out the nuance of all this.
These organics are not smoking gun or easy, and so having them in an Earthbound lab will be helpful.
Well, in the 2030s, you know what your assignment is going to be, Miles. You are going to be reporting on that.
We will see you then. We will see you then, Judy, for sure.
Miles O'Brien, thank you, as always.
You're welcome, Judy.
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Miles O’Brien is a veteran, independent journalist who focuses on science, technology and aerospace.
Courtney Norris is the deputy senior producer of national affairs for the NewsHour. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @courtneyknorris
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