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Perseverance Rover Lands On Mars

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>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Welcome to NOON EDITION. This is Bob Zaltsberg, your host. I'm co-hosting today with Sara Wittmeyer, the news bureau chief at WFIU, WTIU. This week we're talking about Perseverence rover and space exploration. We have three great guests with us on the program today. Briony Horgan is a Purdue University associate professor of planetary science. Matthew Shindell is the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum planetary science and exploration curator. And Juergen Schieber is an IU professor in Earth and atmospheric sciences. You can follow us on Twitter at @noonedition and send us questions there, and you can also send us questions for the show at Thank you all for being here with us today. I'm very excited about this show. And I wanted to start with Dr. Horgan and ask you if you could explain to us what your role was with Perseverance and then what you felt when you saw the video of that actually landing down. 

>>BRIONY HORGAN: Hello. So I'm on the first merit science team. I'm on - actually on the camera team, we call it mass cam Z. And so prior to landing, I worked a lot with looking a different landing sites and helped do analysis for landing sites. But now that we're on the ground, I work on the camera data. We've been doing operations day and night and trying to get the rover going. But yeah, so - I mean, it was an incredible feeling watching the rover land. It was - I think we're all trying to pretend we weren't nervous about it but, of course, we all really were, right? Landing on Mars is incredibly difficult, even with the best engineering possible, which we have with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory rover we have now on Mars. But, man, it was a huge relief seeing the rover land safely on the ground and also super exciting, you know, getting the - especially getting the videos and images back a couple of days later showing the rover landing and showing our landing site in glorious detail. It's just - it's an incredible feeling and it really does feel like we're exploring the final frontier. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: So you helped pick the landing site, is that correct? 

>>BRIONY HORGAN: Sort of. I mean, so NASA chooses the landing site, right? So us lowly scientists don't get to choose, but we get the help. And so that was a lot of fun. We got to help. On the science team, we did a lot of work, you know, diving into the kind of highest priority landing sites and looking at, you know, what could our rover do there and which one would be most appropriate for the kind of questions we're trying to answer? And so I got to do a lot of really great work looking at the site we ended up choosing - or NASA ended up choosing, Jezero Crater, and trying to understand what kinds of ancient environments might have once existed at Jezero Crater based on our data from NASA satellites in orbit. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: And Dr. Schieber, you were a member of the team on Curiosity, the last rover that landed on Mars, so I want you - I want to ask, I guess, if this took you back to working on that rover? And then, you know, what were your thoughts when you saw Perseverence land? 

>>JUERGEN SCHIEBER: You know, when Curiosity landed, the landing procedure that Perseverance used - exactly the same one - was completely unproven, so the tension was a little bit higher because we had anticipated all sorts of terrible things that could happen that were difficult to model, really, because too many variables involved. And so we crossed about every pair of fingers we had available to help it to come down. And it came off without a hitch. I mean, the landing of Curiosity worked exactly as planned. And, you know, with Perseverance you could have said, well, OK, let's say if Curiosity's landing was a fluke, what could go wrong this time? But again, it came down exactly as advertised, so to speak. And so I think we know now that we have a well worked out landing procedure and hardware, and so this system can be used for future rover landings with reasonably good confidence. The other thing is that the landing in Jezero took a quite a bit smaller target area or landing ellipse than we had at - with Curiosity. And it was possible because we had the technical capability to land in a tighter spot with Curiosity already, but we didn't want to test the limits of the system, so we played it safe. They basically utilized some of those additional capabilities for the Perseverance landing and it worked very nicely. So we know that the whole procedure - the internal workings and modeling and everything seems to be very solid. So we - in future rover landings, we can be a little bit more relaxed because we know we have a system that works. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: So if you could just put this a little bit of perspective for me, how far apart are these two landing areas? Is it like from the U.S. to Europe? Or is it like from Bloomington to Ellettsville? 

>>JUERGEN SCHIEBER: More like from here to Europe or something like this? I mean, Mars is a smaller planet, so it's a little - but it's quite a distance. I think, if I'm not mistaken - and Briony can correct me - that I think Jezero is north of the equator a little bit and we - I think Curiosity landed just a little bit south of it. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: All right. I want to bring Matt Shindell in now. He's the - from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, planetary science and exploration curator. Could you put this into some sort of historical perspective for us? 

>>MATTHEW SHINDELL: Yeah, sure. You know, we started exploring Mars with robotic probes back in the 1960s with the Mariner missions. You know, we started with flyby missions, then orbiting missions, and then finally the Viking landers. But I'd say that the period of Mars exploration that we're in now is very different from those early years. I'd say we're pretty much in the middle - or at least not the beginning anymore of a period of continuous science operations on the surface of Mars. And this pretty much started in 2004 with the landing of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. It continued in 2012 with the landing of Curiosity and, you know, continues now with the beginning of the Perseverance rover's mission. And I think what we have to look forward to - to put it in that context - is decades more of planetary exploration on Mars on the surface, as this is at least planned to be the beginning of sample collecting and then sending samples back to the Earth, which will take quite some time. But I think, you know, what we can look forward to if those plans continue to go forward is more continuous operations on the surface of Mars. And then the other thing I would say to put this into some historical perspective is that the other thing that's very significant about this moment is the number of nations who have just arrived at Mars at the same time. So the United Arab Emirates' Hope mission arrived about a week before NASA's mission. The Chinese Tianwen-1 mission is also in orbit around Mars and planning to send a rover down in the next couple of months. And, you know, not that long ago, back in 2014, India arrived with its Mars orbiter, mission Mangalyaan. So we're seeing right now a period of Mars exploration that is very international and not the same sort of Cold War space race context that we had back in the '60s but, you know, something that shows the hope of a lot more international collaboration in the exploration of Mars. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: All right, Sara? 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: So Dr. Horgan, we've gotten several questions sent in, but perhaps you can - we can talk about these first ones yet. Someone asked, why is bringing samples back important? And what will it take also to get rock samples back to Earth? 

>>BRIONY HORGAN: That's a great question. So samples are really important part of this mission, because you can only do so much with a rover on another planet, right? It's very, very difficult to do the kind of work we're trying to do with a rover alone. The goal of this mission is to look for ancient bio-signatures - signs of ancient microbial life. And obviously, microbes are very small, right? And they leave kind of, you know, tastes of themselves behind in the rocks, not necessarily things that always jump out at you with your naked eye and with the kind of things they can put on the rover. And so to really - you know, we'll do the best job we can with the instruments we have, and we have a fantastic payload that can do - you know, has microscopes, that can resolve organic materials down to the size of a grain of salt, and we can do all kinds of amazing mapping, we have a radar to get a - you know, a geologic structure - all kinds of great things. But ultimately, even if we find something on - you know, in our landing site that looks like it could be a sign of ancient life, to really know for sure whether or not that's true - to really convince ourselves, we have to bring those samples back to Earth and look at them in our labs back here on Earth and verify whether or not that's true. And that's really important, too, because it'll also give us a chance to answer a lot of other other questions about Mars other than just life, which is, you know, in itself incredibly important, but even things like how old are rocks on Mars, right? You know, what - we really - we have some idea from looking at densities of impact craters on the surface that tells you kind of how young or old things are in general, but we really don't know in detail how old the rocks we're bringing back are. So getting some idea from using isotope geochemistry and all these incredible techniques we have in our labs on Earth to get at that - it really just - it takes the science we can do to a whole nother level. But to do that's going to be tough. It's actually - the reason - we've been talking about doing Mars sample return for decades - probably 50 years in the Mars community, but we haven't done it because it's really hard because you have to, you know, first go get the samples, and that's what the mars 2020 rover - Perseverance rover is doing. We're collecting these - this fantastic suite of samples. We'll end up getting between - we'll collect between 30 and 40 sort of pencil-sized drill cores of samples and we'll probably end up sending back on the order of about 20. But to do that, we have to land a whole 'nother spacecraft on the planet with a little rover that can go grab the samples, either from a depot or from Perseverance herself, bring it back to a launching platform, launch a small rocket into orbit, rendezvous with a satellite in orbit, and then get back to Earth and land on Earth. So you can see, it's a multi-component mission, it requires a different - many different spacecraft, so it's really tough. So that's why it's kind of - it's a mission unto itself, right? We actually call that Mars sample return and it's being worked on. It actually has some funding. It's being developed right now by NASA and the European Space Agency together to try to alleviate some of the complexity and cost. And we're hoping that that we'll actually launch the first part of that mission either in 2026 or 2028. So for the Perseverance rover, for the science team, that's kind of our deadline, right? We have a couple of deadlines from NASA. One is to finish exploring our kind of immediate landing site within three Earth years and then to get all of our samples that we could possibly want to have returned to a final landing site from our sample return by either - kind of 2026 - 2028 timeline. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: What kind of what kind of data can you gather and what can you learn before sending samples back to Earth to be studied further? 

>>BRIONY HORGAN: Yeah, so we can learn a lot. So with the rover - you know, we've shown with our past rovers that we can do a great job of doing geology on the surface - that, you know, we treat these rovers like geologists walking a field site, and we can do things like understand, you know, stratigraphy, how the rocks - you know, sedimentology - things like how, you know, were the rocks laid down? What were the ancient environments that existed that created these rocks? We can also look for, you know, sort of large scale signs of ancient life - so things like concentrated organic material. We have a couple of different instruments on this rover that can detect organics. And, you know, organics in and of themselves aren't necessarily a great sign of life. They form everywhere. You know, hydrocarbons form in space - right? - and they rain down on the planets and meteorites. But if we see them concentrated along with things like, say, microbial textures, right? So say you have minerals precipitating out of water and kind of fossilized microbes and microbial matts for growing along, say, the shoreline of a lake. If we see those kinds of textures along with organic material, that's a really strong sign that that could, in fact, be biological in origin. So that's the kind of thing we're going to be looking for. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Dr. Schieber, can you explain the differences between, you know, what they're - what Dr. Horgan's looking for and this mission is looking for compared to what Curiosity was looking for? I think you're muted. Well, we don't have him right now, so I'll go to... 

>>JUERGEN SCHIEBER: No, I got it. I got it. I had my microphone muted. 


>>JUERGEN SCHIEBER: So the mission of Curiosity was to find places where life potentially could have existed - so habitability. And so we were primarily looking at the sedimentary rocks in Gale Crater, and we're still looking at them, with an eye towards environments that are familiar to us from from an Earth experience to say, oh, yeah, this was a lake and it has water in it and the water was reasonably warm, not frozen and so forth, and there was not too acid, not too basic. It was just right for Earth-like microbes to have thrived here. We don't know if the microbes actually lived here, but if microbes would have been around, they might have liked that place. That's basically what Curiosity was primarily tasked to do. We don't have - that's why Curiosity also has a different suite of instruments on the rover. Like, we don't have a Raman spectrometer, which is a good instrument for detecting organics or organic bonding styles and so forth because we were not at that point yet in the search. So the first stop was were there environments on Mars that could potentially have hosted life as we know it on Earth. And Perseverance basically knows now that there are environments like this on Mars and we found them in the Gale Crater and conceivably they existed elsewhere on the planet as well, and so they are going to the next step to go into more detail and - on what the rocks are made of and whether they have the right kind of organic material in it to potentially have been produced by living organisms. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: All right. Our phone number - or we don't have phone numbers anymore. I have to - it's been a year since we've been doing this on Zoom and I still mention the phone number. You can follow us on Twitter at @noonedition and you can send us questions there, and you can also send us questions for the show at And I know Sara has some questions that have come in. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: Dr. Schieber, perhaps you would be best to answer this one, but we got a question about why countries don't work together more and then saying, if they did, wouldn't that allow us to do more and save money? 

>>JUERGEN SCHIEBER: Well, space exploration never is cheap, and so, yeah, it would be sort of making a lot of sense to share the burden of the cost and to collaborate instead of having three or four different countries sending probes to Mars to do the same thing, essentially. Send maybe two or three probes financed by the whole group doing different things. It would - the science would turn - would definitely be better. Or if we have fewer rovers, the cost would be lower. But if you think about cost for these missions, the one thing to consider is how cheap they are in consideration to many crazy things countries do, like having wars and so forth, you know? The collaboration - idealistically, yes, we should collaborate. It makes a lot of sense to sensible human beings. But then comes all these kind of things like national pride and national rivalry and so forth, and that sort of - collaboration, for example, between Europe and the United States and Canada and so forth is pretty good. We oftentimes participate in each other's planetary missions. We share instruments, we contribute instruments. Different countries produce instruments. Like, for example, on Perseverance, there's an instrument that was designed in Norway, there's instrumentation that has contributions from France and so forth. And Curiosity, the Russians and the French made contributions. So that's fairly normal nowadays. But, for example, the Arab Emirates - they wanted to have their own rover because they want to put themselves on the map as being an educated part of the world and so forth. And talking about China - China has - I mean, it has something to prove to the world and it wants to do it by itself and so forth. And then the other aspect is, of course, it is very high-end technology that goes into building a spacecraft and so forth. And to some degree, it's - like, for example, is the case of the United States - some of that technology that goes into making a rover land and a spacecraft traveling to Mars is - also has defense implications - military implications. And therefore the United States, for example, does not want to share that technology. You can have the French or the Germans have an instrument on the rover, but at NASA and the United States calls the shots how the thing flies, OK? There shouldn't - these kind of limits that have to do with some hard-nosed defense concerns or it's future - very futuristic technology that may have lots of benefits later on. You want to have that technology to develop in your own country instead of giving it away to others. That's just always a - how do you say? There's never been a period in human history where people and governments did not act selfish. That's just - it's part of human nature, probably. So there we go. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: I want to ask Briony Horgan to answer that same question. 

>>BRIONY HORGAN: Yeah, sure. I mean, I think Juergen covered a lot of it, but I think one thing I would add is it does - collaboration across international lines does add a lot of risk. It can add a lot of benefit that there - you know, is balanced out with the risk. So one example I would add is the Insight lander on Mars - you know, it's this geophysics lander we sent to Mars - that NASA said that has been doing amazing things, you know, measuring Mars quakes and, you know, constraining the size of the Martian core and all of that. But it's a good example because the main instrument on board - the seismometer was contributed by a European country - I think maybe the Dutch but I can't remember exactly. But they actually ran to huge problems because NASA wasn't controlling the development of that instrument. It meant that there actually were all these issues in development and that it ended up delaying the whole mission. You know, one problem with Mars is you can only launch every two years and, if you miss your launch window, you're delayed two years and that adds a lot of costs, you have to keep paying people, you know, you don't get to your science as soon. And so that mission was delayed. It ended up working out great - right? - and we've done - gotten great science from it. But it definitely - it added cost, added complexity, and so NASA does try to balance that. And like - I think, like Juergen said, we do a lot of collaboration. You know, there's whole instrument teams on board Perseverance that are operating in Europe, and that actually works out great for us because it means they can take the operations that are middle of the night for us sometimes. So we appreciate the collaboration. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: So I love hosting this show because I get to ask the simple questions, but I know it's not - nothing simple about traveling to Mars. But why is there a window that you can only launch every two years? 

>>BRIONY HORGAN: Yeah. So it's because, basically, when we launch to Mars - you know, Earth and Mars travel at different speeds in their orbits because, as you get closer to the sun, planets move faster. So Earth is moving a lot faster than Mars is. And so we have to kind of time the launch so that you launch from Earth and kind of catch up to Mars that's just sort of in front of the Earth as the Earth is moving toward it, and there's a very narrow window in which you can do that. If you wait too long, you'll miss that and Mars will be behind you and it's really hard to go backwards. You know, it's - all these issues. So we have the same issues with - if we ever want to send humans to Mars, we'll have the same kinds of constraints. We don't have these problems with launching missions to low Earth orbit or the moon, they can kind of go whenever they want, but it's a very specific constraint we have for Mars. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: All right. Dr. Shindell, I want to ask about the Smithsonian and about - you know, when something like this happens - I mean, I think that the landing of Perseverance really brought a lot of attention to space exploration again, and I guess I wanted to ask you how that plays into what you have at the National Air and Space Museum. 

>>MATTHEW SHINDELL: Yeah, sure. I mean, it plays in a lot to what we end up collecting for the museum and what we end up putting on display. The caveat to that is that we often have to wait quite a while before pieces of technology that were related to the mission actually become available to us. So, for example, you know, I mentioned before that, in 2004, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed on Mars, and it was only just this last year that I was able to collect for the museum the sort of test bed version of that rover so that we could have an actual real - you know, at least, you know, in most ways real rover to show to the public. Before that, we had just a sort of representative model. It was a great model and people could look at it and see what the rover looked like. But now they can actually see a piece of the technology that was critical in that mission. We try to be proactive. So, for example, one of the stories that's attached to the Perseverance rover is that it happened, of course, in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic. And so what people saw if they watched on YouTube or the NASA TV channel was, you know, people in mission control wearing masks and they saw people social distancing. They saw short videos that NASA had produced and explained how they had kept people safe while they continued to work on that rover mission because you couldn't just shut it down. As Briony was explaining, you know, these windows come around only every two years and not every window is as favorable as the others, and this happened to be a particularly favorable launch window - this past year. So, you know, I've been trying to collect stuff that represents that - the way that the folks at JPL and NASA just continued to work and found ways of working safely during that period. So one of the things I've just collected is a face mask - a Mars 2020 face mask from the landing date that was, you know, one of the ones that was given out to mission control who were on shift during that landing, and then also one of the signs from JPL that listed all of the ways of staying safe at work while they had to be there. Because, you know, at most other NASA centers, there were only sort of what you would consider essential personnel working. It was - JPL was an exception because of the Mars rover, as was, for example, people who were supporting the International Space Station and other active missions. But, you know, keeping those people safe and getting the work done really became an important part of the story of this rover and I'm trying to make sure that we can represent that in addition to the technology which may eventually come to us when NASA no longer needs it. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: It's going to be several years, though, right? 


>>BOB ZALTSBERG: So I wanted to ask both Dr. Horgan and Dr. Schieber about that, because I think that was a very interesting point about working in a time of covid. So, Dr. Horgan, I assume that you were doing - well, how many years have you been working on this project? 

>>BRIONY HORGAN: So this project - so we submitted our proposal for - to put the cameras on the rover back in 2013 and got selected the year after that, so we've been working on this for seven years. And, you know, it's been - the transition to COVID has been pretty crazy because even just during development we would meet all the time as a camera team. And, you know, the mission team were broadly - getting together really helps, you know, solidify a team and building teamwork and all of that. But now, you know, we can't meet, and so everything is remote, which is a huge change from previous missions. You know, Curiosity, Spirit, Opportunity, previous rovers - you know, the science team would all come together for landing at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and, you know, live and work together there for months on end. One of the weird things about working on a rover when it first lands is that, you know, in order to get the plans every day up to the rover so it can execute them, you know, starting in the morning, we have to actually work on what we call Mars time. And so basically, as soon as the data comes back from the rover the previous day, we start working and we work until we get the data uploaded to the rover for the next day, and so that happens at weird hours. So our day kind of shifts. You know, right now shifts for operations on Perseverance are starting at around 3:00 a.m. Eastern Time. And, you know - but that shifts over the course of a couple of days and eventually we'll be back to normal time. But, you know, when you're doing that as a whole team, you know, in Pasadena in person, that's - it's a really - you know, I haven't actually done it myself, but I've heard that's just a really wonderful experience. You know, it's hard, but it's - you're working together. But I got to tell you, it's a lot harder doing that when you're - for me, in my case, at home, in my office with my husband and one-year-old son in the next room trying to live their days on normal time, it's just - we're - I think we're doing a great job, but it's definitely - it's a lot tougher than it'd normally be. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Yeah. Dr. Schieber, How about when you were working intensely on Curiosity? 

>>JUERGEN SCHIEBER: Well, we started - I mean, the Curiosity work started in 2004 and then we landed in 2012, so there were eight years of preliminary work involved of, you know, kicking around how - what the instrument should do and how it should do it best. Finding a landing site - we spent a lot of time in trying to find landing sites at debating landing sites. I mean, before the whole thing started, we, of course, had our favorites already. And we strategized successfully to get into Gale Crater because it was - well, it was the best stratigraphic section and everything. And so we succeeded there, but it took a lot of - the whole team had to go en masse to all the landing site meetings, proposing every good candidate that we had on our list to eventually get it passed through all the committees and so forth in the selection process. But that's - you know, that was just a long stretch of just getting there. Once we finally arrived on Mars, I mean, I was in the - I was next to the control room - we - all the scientists that were on the mission basically were basically in one big room with TV screens showing us what's going on and how the rover is proceeding and - I mean, how the spacecraft is proceeding. And so we were very much embedded in the process - how this all unfolded. And personally, I'm a fairly calm person, I don't get excited about stuff too much, it's a very rational kind of thing, you know? Either it works or it does not work and da da da da da. But I could see around me that people got extremely tense and then finally the message came, the rover has landed and is sending back signals means it's OK, the room erupted basically, you know, and people were hugging and kissing and going crazy. There was just - that's something that's probably only basically missed with 2020 because it's just - there was no chance for doing it. And then the other good thing was that we were staying on the Caltech - at - in Pasadena at JPL for basically the moment of the landing until almost Christmas, basically, to interact - to get the rover ready to roll, to get all the instruments commissioned, to do the initial science, and then went home after we had basically established how to do this work. And it was very helpful at that point in time that we could basically talk to the people on a different science instrument team, we have a cup of coffee, we discuss certain things - one - on - across a table and so forth. It is a much more efficient way of doing this than if you're on a Zoom screen or something like this. It's probably by at least a factor of 10 more efficient than doing it via Zoom. And also you get to know the other people that are on the team - you get to know them as a person. You know, it just - it makes a different human connection between the other instrument teams. And then, you know, if there's a problem in - with something, you know whom to call - whom to email to because you have talked with that person, you know how he would respond - react to a certain request by your team and so forth. And I'm hoping that, you know, in a few months, we can go - I mean, we will not have this experience, but at least we may have - of course, hoping for the Perseverance team that they have later on time that they can get together to actually know the other person that is doing an instrument that they depend on and so forth. And it's just the human connection between the people that built a mission is very important for a mission's long-term success. I mean, if you look, for example, at the Apollo missions - the guys that did the rockets - those were the Wernher von Braun's engineering teams from Germany - the Nazis, basically - and - but those guys knew how to work together. They built the Saturn V with slide rules, literally, and the damn thing flew and we went to the moon. But these team - all of these engineering teams - and there was not too much science back then, but engineering - they functioned so well because everybody knew everybody and everybody knew what some - where somebody strong points was. What can you - if I have a question about boiling points of liquid oxygen and so forth and how to make it transport efficiently through pipes and so forth, who is a guy that knows about this? And that you can talk to that guy directly, he is in the next office and stuff like this. These kind of things are very much impeded by COVID-19 and the safety measures we have to take. But on the other hand, it is very encouraging that it went out - it went without a hitch. We have much nicer facilities nowadays to communicate remotely with each other and to - and we went into remote mode with Curiosity about six months after the rover had landed, so we had established all these connections, we had - we knew who the other people are by name and in person. And then it - so when COVID-19 happened, the Curiosity was just already in remote mode, we didn't really feel any difference. We just kept going because we had been doing this for years already. But for the Perseverance team, it would have been nice to have had this kind of post-landing period of getting to know the other people on the team directly. 


>>SARA WITTMEYER: Matt, I had - I wanted to ask you, just as somebody who was back here watching the broadcast landing, what did you find the most interesting about being able to watch that? 

>>JUERGEN SCHIEBER: Well, you know, back in - when we - when Curiosity landed - trust me, we would have liked to have cameras to film everything that was going on that's like they did for Perseverance. We would have liked to see the parachute open up and all this kind of good stuff. But at - with that mission, we were - NASA was a bit more - would you say - conservative. We were really pressed to conserve weight. And extra cameras - that's weight. Also, they use resources. And back then you could not put anything on the rover that was not space certified, meaning it had to go through a gauntlet of quality assurance measures that said component, be it a camera or capacitor or whatever - that that component would perform under the harsh environment of space. And they relaxed those rules a little bit for Perseverance to have those cameras that showed the parachute open up and so forth and showed the operations of the landing - those were off the shelf cameras - you know, GoPro type cameras, and they performed quite nicely, but we couldn't be sure about it, you know? But they were not mission critical, so NASA let it go. And, OK, it's not mission critical. If it fails - whether we have a video of the parachute opening up or not is not mission critical, we can go with it. But in 2004 or five, that was not on the table even. If it had to be a space certified component, otherwise we would have gotten cameras, for example, that were - would have been of higher quality than what we have on Curiosity. I mean, I'm thrilled that the mass cams on Perseverance are almost as good as the science cameras were on Curiosity and have a zooming capability of the mass cams, so that's cool. We were - I mean, the mass cams, for example - mass cam C was originally planned for Curiosity. The models - I mean, the designs were already done and they were being refined. But by the time that instruments had to be ready, there were still questions about whether mass cam C will perform as advertised, and so they down-shifted the requirements. So instead of giving a zoom lens, it became a fixed lens - fixed focal lens and - just to make sure that what goes onto the surface will actually do the job. Then they had another decade of time to play with that mechanism and to refine it, to improve it, and so mass cam C was able to go on Perseverance, and it's performing wonderfully. It might have performed wonderfully in 2012 but back then NASA didn't think we were ready with it. But it's just - how do you say - the differences are just - I mean, I liked all the videos from the landing because it's - of course, I'm curious about it. It's - but... 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: I want to ask Matt a question, if you don't mind. First, I want to ask him to talk about his reaction, you know, to the pictures that you saw. And then I have a follow up to that. 

>>MATTHEW SHINDELL: Yeah. Well, you know, I've been following these landings for a while. I was lucky enough that, back in 2004, when Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars, I was at Jet Propulsion Laboratory with one of the instrument teams and got to watch that moment in person, which was incredible. And I haven't had that opportunity since to sort of be in the group and feel the excitement as it happens. But, you know, it is really remarkable that, you know, there is now so much access to these things - that you can just pull up YouTube and watch live as mission control, you know, counts down every step of the landing and reports back what signals they're getting from the rover and from the sky crane as it's bringing down the rover. I mean, having that kind of access is very different from, you know, the earlier years of space exploration where you possibly could tune into something on TV but, you know, most launches and science activities weren't necessarily going to make it on your local TV channel. I mean, I was born in 1976, the same year that the Viking landers landed on Mars, and kind of grew up paying attention to what was happening in space. And I remember really it was just snippets - right? - that would ever make it on to television, maybe moments from a press conference from Voyager or something like that. But having so much access now is amazing. And it really, like, goes back to this moment in the mid-'90s. I don't know if you remember. In 1997, after, you know, the Sojourner rover started roving around on Mars - you know, the first rover ever on another planet - this was the early years of the Internet and it was, you know, very sort of forward thinking of NASA - they actually set up a website for the Pathfinder-Sojourner mission and were posting some of the latest images as they would come in so that, every day, you could go online and see the latest images from Mars. And it was so popular that that website actually crashed multiple times because it was getting too much traffic. I mean, fast forward to now in 2021 and you're seeing, you know, every raw image that's coming back from Perseverance. You might have to wait a little while for it to get posted on the Internet, but you have almost immediate access to all of that visual data. And, you know, I think that's remarkable. That's something that we haven't really had before - not until this most recent period of Mars exploration. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: So I feel like the seasoned member of our panel today, because I, of course, remember Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom and John Glenn, and that was a big deal when I was growing up. So I've been following space for a long time, too. Briony, how did you get interested in Mars? And I guess I would broaden out that question and say, you know, why is Mars such a focal point of our space exploration? 

>>BRIONY HORGAN: Yeah, well, I think I can probably answer both with kind of a similar answer because, you know, for me, the reason that Mars is so fascinating is because it's so close to being Earth-like, right? You know, we have all this evidence that it had lakes and rivers and rain and snow and all these things in the past. But today it's this alien world. And for me, understanding how it went from, you know, what it used to look like and why and how it changed is what's so, so interesting about it. And I think that's really too what's driving NASA is that, you know, Mars - there's a lot of - going back to kind of big picture, the biggest question NASA wants to answer is are we alone in the universe? And they're going at it a bunch of different ways - you know, looking at extrasolar planets, looking for signs of oxygen or other bio-signatures around those - you know, those planets beyond our system. We're looking at the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, which might host oceans that could host life today. And then there's Mars. And the difference between Mars and a lot of those other places is, one, it's pretty easy to get to. It's, relative to these other places, pretty easy to work on and land on. And we also understand it really well because it's so Earth-like, you know, relatively to these other worlds. And so Mars - that's the reason Mars has kind of been the priority is because, you know, we can use everything we've learned from geology on Earth to try to understand where we should look for life on Mars or what it might look like. And so that's really what's been driving, you know, decades and decades of Mars exploration. it's the reason we keep sending rovers after rovers after rovers. And what's really exciting about the Perseverance rover is that it's the culmination of all of that. You know, we've basically spent all this time, all these different missions building up to this one mission where we're going to finally, after learning all of this - everything we can about Mars' orbit on the ground to really looking, you know, at best case we know how for was there some - was there life on ancient Mars? And bringing those samples back. You know, that might be - the samples that we get back from this mission might be the only samples that we bring back from Mars ever until we send humans there. And so this mission - you know, it's super exciting. It's also - you know, it's a lot of pressure, too, I think on the science side that, you know, we have a lot to do. But, you know, I think, so far, we have a great landing site and a great rover and we're already seeing just amazing data coming back. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Matt, the question I was going to follow up with with you on has to do with the science side. I mean, I am - you know, I'm kind of a mere mortal. My mind doesn't work the way scientists' minds work and it's hard to put my - you know, wrap my arms around launching something from Earth and getting it to go to Mars and then land gently on the surface of the planet. You know, we've just been through a time when there have been people who've been skeptical about science and, you know, we're kind of in a weird place about people believing, you know, in science and scientific work and exploration. So I guess I just wanted to ask you about the - you know, the importance of science. That would be an easy one. But then, you know, how do we convince people that things that are not that easily grasped by them are real, are true, are happening? That there is something that just landed on Mars? 

>>MATTHEW SHINDELL: Yeah. I mean, that's a pretty big question. You know, I think moments like these - and if you go back to the Apollo missions which, you know, you were mentioning - the early years of human spaceflight a little earlier - if you look at public opinion polls during during those periods, you see that, you know, not everyone was convinced that America should be spending that amount of money on space, et cetera, et cetera. But you'll also see, in those same public opinion polls, that this was a moment in which, because of the accomplishments of NASA, people had an increased faith in the government and what it could accomplish and increased faith in science and engineering because of what they were seeing. And put that in the backdrop of, you know, a lot of negativity as a result of the Vietnam War and as a result of other other things that were happening in the U.S. that were sort of eroding people's faith in government. The Apollo program actually turned out to be one of the best PR campaigns that the government ran during that period and it really did give the sense that the government could accomplish things if it just sort of put its resources to it. And I think the same is true of these Mars missions is that, you know, people see these things happen - and I don't think that they really do doubt that we've landed anything on Mars, I - or at least I haven't heard that expressed by anybody. On the contrary, I think that they do suddenly have this moment of - I'm not sure if it's pride or, you know, a sort of positive emotion about what can be accomplished when we do put resources to solving certain problems, like sending something that far away and landing it on another planet. And what I see most, actually, is the reaction - if someone does get negative about this is the reaction - why is it we can do that but we can't solve this other problem? Like, why can we do that but we can't make sure that everyone has, you know, adequate health care or we can't make sure that everyone gets vaccinated quickly, or - et cetera, et cetera, right? So I actually think that these moments are great moments for science and for helping to sort of get people - you know, remind them of what science can actually do when it is done by people who are incredibly competent and who have the resources to do it. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Briony, I'd like to hear your response to that very broad and long question. 

>>BRIONY HORGAN: Yeah, I mean, I think - one of the reasons I love doing this kind of work is because it is still inspiring to a lot of people and people really do, I think, relate deeply to exploration and, you know, seeing new places and, you know, answering these kind of fundamental questions. Yeah. So - yeah, so for me, that's - I don't encounter people very often that don't believe what we're doing or that it's not true or it's pretty rare. Occasionally on a plane I'll run into people who don't believe we landed on the moon or something like that, right? But that's a whole other set of people that, you know, I don't think that the fact that I can pull out my phone and show them the pictures we got down that day from the rover are going to convince anyway, so I'm not too worried about it. But I do think what's really amazing about NASA is that it is so inspirational to, you know, whole generations of kids, right? I mean, part of the reason that, you know, I got involved in this kind of work is because, you know, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life back in college. You know, I was a physics major but, you know, I didn't really want to be a physicist. And I saw Spirit and Opportunity landing and I said, wow, that's just - that's an amazing - I didn't know you could be a planetary scientist. I had no idea that was a field of science. So just seeing that was what inspired me to change - you know, kind of change careers and go into a totally different field and now I study rocks and it's great. So yeah, I think that's the power of a lot of what NASA does is the power to inspire. 


>>SARA WITTMEYER: Earlier you were talking about why it's important to do these missions to Mars and I want to follow up with one thing you said, but - about people going to Mars. And do you think sending humans one day is a certainty? 

>>BRIONY HORGAN: I love to say it's true and definitely a certainty. I would certainly - you know, one of the things I would love to do is be the scientist in the back room helping the astronauts figure out which rock did you bring back for us, right? But I don't know. I mean, it's a hard problem, right? Going to Mars - we've heard a lot about this recently from, you know, folks like Elon Musk and SpaceX, you know, that we have to do this, this is a certainty. But man, it is really hard to get to Mars. It is even harder to live on it long-term. And I think a lot of these kind of ideas that people put out there just don't take that into account. You know, it is - Mars is not - it is not currently a habitable world, right? It takes a lot of work to make it a place that it could be even sort of temporarily safe for humans - you know, thinking about habitats and things. And NASA's putting a lot of work into this. And one of the reasons that, you know, NASA is sort of perennially at least 10 years out from sending humans to Mars is because, you know, we have to think about - how do you build a habitat that will protect people from things like radiation, right? Mars - and one of the things we learned from - the Curiosity rover actually has a radiation sensor on board and was able to measure radiation all the way from launch through today on Mars and understanding, you know, what kind of exposure we would get. And it's - turns out it's really bad. It's much, much worse than we thought. And it's so bad that, you know, you couldn't have people living long-term on the - Mars' surface without living deep underground, right? It would not be a pleasant way to live. And so - and just trying to support people - you know, how do you - you have to grow food. Where do you get water? These are all really hard questions. It really is like, you know, giving - saying to someone, here - you know, here's a parcel of land out west, but it's up to you to figure out how to get there and how to live off of it, and we're still trying to figure that out. But I'd like to say that we'll get there soon. And I think - you know, because the kind of science we can do with humans on the surface really is so far beyond what rovers can do that it really - it would take us to a whole new level. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: We only have about two minutes to go, so I want to ask Juergen first just for a short answer on - just to sort of sum up, you know, why this landing - this rover landing should be of huge importance to the people who are listening today. 

>>JUERGEN SCHIEBER: Well, because - you know, I'm looking at kind of explanation like a mountaineer looks at mountains. We climb up because they're there, right? But the thing is that the whole history of Mars exploration has been this carrot that was being dangled in front of us - is can we try to show that there's an other place besides Earth where life could have evolved and persisted for a while? If - this mission is sort of the next step of - I mean, by collecting good samples that can be brought back to Earth eventually and verified, it's a critical building stone towards answering that question - has life been present at some point in time elsewhere besides Earth? 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: OK. I want to ask Briony to answer that same question in about 30 seconds, and then I'll give Matt the last word. 

>>BRIONY HORGAN: Because this is the best thing that - one of the best things NASA has ever done. It's so exciting. It's - you know, this is the pinnacle of Mars exploration. We're going to get amazing - hopefully answers to incredibly important questions like are we alone in the universe? That's our big hope with this mission. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: All right. And Matt Shindell? 

>>MATTHEW SHINDELL: Well, since since both the scientists have covered the significance of finding or looking for life, I want to just sort of put a plug in for how exploring Mars and continuing to learn more and more about Mars and the other planets, especially in the inner solar system, really is increasing the amount of knowledge that we have about our own planet, how it ended up the way that it is, and what potentially could happen to it in the future. That even though this is the exploration of Mars, we are, you know, learning more and more about the Earth as a planet as we do that exploration. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: All right. Thank you. And we are out of time. I really appreciate all three of you being here with us today. I want to thank Briony Horgan from the - from Purdue University, and she's on the Perseverance team. And also Juergen Schieber from IU, a professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences, who was on the Curiosity team. And Matthew Shindell, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum planetary science and exploration curator. Thank you to our - my co-host, Sara Wittmeyer, to producer Bente Bouthier, and to engineer John Bailey. I'm Bob Zaltsberg. Thanks for listening to NOON EDITION. 


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Courtesy of NASA images (Courtesy of NASA images)

Noon Edition airs on Fridays at noon on WFIU.

The NASA Perseverance rover landed on Mars last month after a nearly seven-month journey to the planet. 

The descent was historic. This was the first time a rover descent was captured on video and could be streamed for the public.  

The rover’s mission for the next two years will be to find biosignatures- signals that life once existed on the planet. It will also drill for samples of material, which a future mission will bring back.  

The rover will explore Jezero Crater, a site a Purdue scientist helped select.  

Modeled after the 2012 Curiosity rover, Perseverance has a few upgrades and will have to navigate more difficult terrain.  

This week, we’ll talk with scientists about finding signs of life on Mars, and what that means for the future of exploration.  

You can follow us on Twitter @NoonEdition or join us on the air by calling in at 812-855-0811 or toll-free at 1-877-285-9348. You can also send us questions for the show at

Note-This week of our guests and hosts will participate remotely to avoid risk of spreading infection. 


Briony Horgan, Purdue University associate professor of planetary science

Matthew Shindell, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Planetary Science and Exploration curator

Juergen Schieber, IU Professor, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

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