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NASA Lands Another Probe On Red Planet, Looking For Life On Mars

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

NASA has done it again.

(SONDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Touchdown confirmed. Perseverence is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life.

SHAPIRO: The space agency's six-wheeled rover called Perseverence landed safely on Mars shortly before 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time today. NPR's Joe Palca was listening to Mission Control throughout the landing sequence, and he's with us now. Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Seems like the whole country rallied around this good news in a time of a lot of bad news. So tell us what happened as this landing took place.

PALCA: Well, I don't know about the whole country, but I have to tell you, this is the fifth time I've watched a landing work successfully, a rover landing, and it just never gets old. I mean, it's just such an amazing thing that this spacecraft that's been traveling for seven months, it comes into the Martian atmosphere at 12,000 miles per hour. It has a heat shield, it has a parachute, it has a jet pack, it has a skycrane - all these things that have to work exactly right and they did. And the other amazing thing about this particular landing was throughout the whole thing, there was telemetry. So you could actually watch on the screen where it said, OK, how high is it, how fast is it going? Unbelievable.

SHAPIRO: So you said you've seen several of these. What made this one different, I mean, apart from the telemetry?

PALCA: Well, that was one thing. The other is this is a smart landing system. A lot of times, you just go to the planet and hope you land someplace that's safe. I mean, obviously, it's not just anywhere on the planet. They pick a spot, but the area that they might land in is pretty large. This time, they were able to bring it down to a very small area by having onboard navigation system. So they actually know exactly where they landed. And they were able to avoid some boulders that they knew could be a big problem if they happened to land on them. So they were able avoid those. Just everything worked exactly as it was supposed to, which is quite something.

SHAPIRO: You know, this rover has a lot of cameras, so when are we going to start seeing the high-quality pictures?

PALCA: Well, high quality is still a little ways off. Yes, it does have a lot of cameras. The first pictures have already come in. I mean, so it's just - to me, I don't know about you, but when I see a picture live from another planet or quasi-live, I get excited. But there are pictures. There are cameras on the rover and on the descent stage that lowered the rover down to the surface that are going to have movies of this happening in - as it happened. And I got to tell you, these are going to be just amazing if the cameras worked as they're supposed to. But, I mean, you get a little spoiled because everything seems to be working so well. You expect everything to work. They might not, but perhaps they will - hopefully do.

SHAPIRO: So just briefly, what's at the top of the agenda for this rover?

PALCA: Well, this rover was sent to a place called Jezero Crater, which is a home for a lake, but the lake hasn't been there for 3.5 billion years. What they're hoping is that while the lake was there, there might - and I have to emphasize might - might have been some form of microbial life in the lake. And if there was, maybe it would leave some sign left behind that the rover could detect in the rocks. And so that's what it'll be doing, studying rocks.

SHAPIRO: The suspense from NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Thanks for sharing your excitement with us.

PALCA: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.