Feb 17, 2021

NASA Press Conference Transcript February 17: Perseverance Rover Searching for Life on Mars

NASA Press Conference Transcript February 17: Perseverance Rover Searching for Life on Mars
RevBlogTranscriptsNASA Press Conference Transcript February 17: Perseverance Rover Searching for Life on Mars

NASA mission experts held a press conference on February 17, 2021 to discuss the 2020 Perseverance rover mission to search for life on Mars. The rover landed successfully on Mars the next day, February 18. Read the transcript of the briefing with mission details here.

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Speaker 1: (05:06)
And liftoff. As the countdown to Mars continues, the Perseverance of Humanity launching the next generation of robotic explorers to the red planet.

Marina Jurica: (05:56)
Good afternoon. NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover launched from Earth six months ago. And now we are less than a day away from touchdown on the red planet. The rover will attempt to land in Jezero crater tomorrow. It’s the most difficult landing site on Mars ever attempted, but the Perseverance rover and the team are ready.

Marina Jurica: (06:18)
Welcome to NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory in Southern California. I’m Marina Jurica, your host today, as we bring you a closer look into Perseverance’s journey to search for signs of ancient life and how the next mission Mars sample return will bring samples from the surface of Mars back to Earth. As we are social distancing, I will introduce you to our panel here, and those joining us virtually.

Marina Jurica: (06:45)
On our panel today are NASA associate administrator for the science mission directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen. JPL’s director of solar system exploration, Bobby Braun. The European Space Agency director of human and robotic exploration. David Parker. Director of NASA’s astrobiology program, Mary Voytek. Perseverance deputy project scientist, Ken Williford. Sample return scientist and professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Elizabeth Hausrath.

Marina Jurica: (07:24)
For anyone watching who would like to submit a question, you can do so by using the countdown to Mars hashtag. Our phone lines are now open to the media. You can ask a question by pressing star one to enter the queue. To start, I’d like to welcome Thomas Zurbuchen. Good afternoon, Dr. Z.

Thomas Zurbuchen: (07:42)
I’m so glad to be here, Marina, thanks so much. And I’m just in awe because we’re a day out from going back into history, landing in this ancient lake bed in search for potential ancient life. And that of course is a culmination of decades of work by NASA and the international community, and is built by all directorates with many individuals around the United States and internationally, contributing.

Thomas Zurbuchen: (08:17)
What we’re going to talk about today has to do with this, look at this right now. It’s as sample tube, if I turn it around, I see the number 53 on it. And I remember, from various meetings I’ve been in, that there’s something like 70 of those. And some of them, with specific numbers, are right now hurling towards Mars. It’s about that sample tube that so much of this panel will be about. The goal of course, is to collect promising samples in this super clean tube and its analogs of course, the ones up there towards going Mars, and really collecting those samples as a first step of the most difficult missions or one of the most difficult missions ever undertaken.

Thomas Zurbuchen: (09:05)
It’s of course, trying to make significant progress in answering one of the questions that has been with us for many centuries, namely are we alone in the universe? Our robotic geologist and astrobiologist is poised to help find the answers, just like the great geologists on Earth. It’s not just about the sample, it’s about the geologic context of that sample that will also be explored and it will do so at Jezero crater with a set of some of the most advanced instruments ever conceived and designed, supporting that amazing collection.

Thomas Zurbuchen: (09:50)
An amazing drilling and caching system is at the heart of really the interface between the rock, where all these treasures are, and the samples that eventually will be with us. These samples will be returned triple sealed, and at a cleanliness level hardly ever achieved, certainly in modern times, and ensure that the samples are pristine and protected.

Thomas Zurbuchen: (10:20)
We’re looking for ancient life, as I said at the beginning. Mars’ surface today, especially where we’re going, is not hospitable for life, we believe, because of the absence of water, the freezing cold landscape, and the radiation that constantly showers the surface as we see it there. But we know due to the rovers and orbiters of the past and the present that Mars has had a wet past. And as we go to Jezero, we go to the most promising site to really unlock the information about that wet past and to question, was there ancient life during that period where on Earth, life was arising.

Thomas Zurbuchen: (11:06)
The Mars sample return is of high importance to the agency, the science community overall, and it has been a goal that many scientists have been thinking about for decades. And what we did is as we thought about Mars sample return, I actually commissioned an independent review just a few months ago and asked some of the best minds all over the US and beyond a simple question, which is, are we ready to proceed with Mars sample return technically? And the answer was really simple and it’s an answer that we are glad to receive, and that is the committee told us we are ready. And to do so, it’s the international community partnership with ISA to really go and build that sample return. So while we’re awaiting a safe and successful landing, we remember of course, this is difficult to achieve. There are many panels that have talked about this, but I’m really excited to turn it over to my friend and colleague Bobby Braun, to talk about the Mars sample return campaign. Bobby.

Bobby Braun: (12:17)
Thank you, Thomas. It’s great to be here today and it’s great to be with you. It’s a super exciting time here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as we await Perseverance’s landing tomorrow. I’m also really excited to get to represent the Mars Sample Return program and all the people around the world that are working on that program already. Mars Sample Return is the planetary science endeavor of our generation. It’s ambitious, it’s challenging. It’s scientifically compelling goal that over decades we have been working towards and it’s right there. It’s just within our reach. And with the launch and tomorrow’s landing of Perseverance, the Mars sample return science activities can begin on the surface of Mars.

Bobby Braun: (13:05)
As an engineer, I’m in awe of what the Perseverance team has done over these past few years, what they’ve accomplished, but I’d like to take a minute and describe to you how we’re building upon Perseverance’s science mission in the development of the next two flight missions, whose goal together is to return the Perseverance acquired samples to Earth to study in laboratories across the globe with instrumentation that just simply can’t be miniaturized and qualified for space flight.

Bobby Braun: (13:41)
This next graphic shows the four elements of the Mars sample return campaign. Perseverance on the left, nearly at the Mars surface, about ready to begin this science journey. And then the next two flight elements, which are presently in development, the sample retrieval lander mission and the Earth return orbiter mission. I’m going to describe those to you in a little bit more detail, and then out a ways, we’re going to be developing a sample return handling facility that will acquire and curate and even distribute the samples when they’re back at Earth. Three missions and one ground element working together to accomplish sample return.

Bobby Braun: (14:27)
Now, the thing that binds those missions together is sitting, a mock-up at least, is sitting here with me today. This is the bottom half of the Mars sample return sample container. And you can see for scale, I have two of the sample tubes that Dr. Z just held up and placed in this container. This container can hold up to 30 samples and it is much like the baton in a relay race. This container is the heart of sample return because the sample tubes will be filled by Perseverance. The sample retrieval lander will house this container and they’ll be placed within. And then the third element, the Earth return orbiter will bring this container, triply sealed, back to the Earth.

Bobby Braun: (15:20)
So this next slide describes the sample retrieval lander in a little more detail. It, like Perseverance, will be an amazing engineering achievement. On its way to Mars, it’ll look a lot like Perseverance does today, buttoned up in its aero shell with a cruise stage, controlling its journey through interplanetary space. It’ll fly through the Mars atmosphere with an aero shell, a heat shield, if you will, and a parachute as shown in this slide. And those systems are built upon what Perseverance will demonstrate tomorrow. Now the one addition from a technology standpoint for that lander, is the-

Bobby Braun: (16:03)
… for that lander is the inclusion of propellant to fly out errors and to do truly a pinpoint landing on the surface of Mars. Because unlike Perseverance, which is a mission of exploration and discovery, the Sample Retrieval Lander will be sent to a specific spot on Mars where Perseverance has already cashed it samples in a depot on the Mars surface. We’re going to know before the Sample Retrieval Lander launches, exactly where that spot is. And we’re going to land within about a hundred yards of that spot on the surface of Mars. This graphic, the next one, this one, shows a notional traverse of Perseverance that it may take across the Mars surface. Now today, of course, we don’t know precisely how Perseverance will venture across Mars and what it will find.

Bobby Braun: (16:58)
But we’ve analyzed hundreds of traverses that it may take. And across those traverses, we found places, many safe zones, where we can land with our pinpoint landing technology. The largest lander that will have been sent to Mars at that time, the Sample Retrieval Lander, and we can deploy a fetch rover that can traverse the surface to the Depot and bring those samples back to the lander.

Bobby Braun: (17:27)
So in this next slide, which is an animation, go to the next slide. There you go. You’ll see the sample fetch rover deployed on the surface. And in this artist concept, there’s just one tube that it’s picking up, but you see it’s tray there is already full, because it’s picked up quite a few others. And then it’s going to head back to the Sample Retrieval Lander when its tray is full of tubes. Go to the next slide, please. Once either the sample fetch rover, or Perseverance itself loads the samples into this canister, the canister, which is already inside the Mars asset vehicle, a rocket on the Mars surface, that rocket will carry this canister, sealed, into orbit about Mars.

Bobby Braun: (18:19)
On this next video, that orbiting sample, this container itself, will be in Mars orbit, and we’ll ultimately be captured by the Earth Return Orbiter. Within the payload of the Earth Return Orbiter, it’ll be sealed yet again and placed inside the Earth Entry Vehicle that will contain the samples for its flight through the Earth’s atmosphere. Let’s go to the next slide, upon return to earth. The Earth Return Orbiter itself is a tremendous spacecraft. It’s the largest spacecraft we will have built and sent to Mars, specifically for this purpose. Our architecture allows us to send the Lander Mission and/or the Orbiter Mission to Mars, in either 2026, or 2028. And those two launches, and those two missions are being managed together by NASA and the European Space Agency.

Bobby Braun: (19:19)
In fact, today there’s a large group of engineers and scientists across both NASA and European Space Agency sites that are already working on these missions. And it’s wonderful to be working in partnership with the European Space Agency on this endeavor. And with that, I’d like to turn the conversation over to David Parker. David is the ESA Director of Human and Robotic Exploration. And he’ll tell you a little bit more about this journey, David.

David Parker: (19:49)
Thank you very much, Bobby. That was fascinating, I think. And I’m also really excited that we’re just hours away from the landing Perseverance. Any mission to Mars is exciting, but because it’s the start of the Mars Sample Return Campaign, it’s super exciting. And it’s something I’ve been dreaming about for nearly 20 years from when ESA first started studies for such a mission.

David Parker: (20:11)
Now, hopefully, you know that ESA, the European Space Agency is a club of 22 countries who pool our efforts in exploring and using space for everyday life. And Canada is a long-standing cooperating state. And this is important for me to mention, because Canada is also part of the MSR campaign via ESA. Now, within the huge range of ESAs projects and monitoring climate change with Copernicus, providing global navigation with Galileo, Mars Sample Return is part of our growing space exploration program. And we have the privilege to work with NASA every single day, just as Bobby mentioned.

David Parker: (20:47)
Our space exploration and focuses on destinations where humans will one day live and work. We’re already living and working low earth orbit to build the Space Station, of course, and we’re on our way going forward to Mars. And ESA is also part of the Artemis Program, working with NASA. Now, as far as Mars is concerned, we already have two missions there, starting with our Mars Express Spacecraft back in 2003, doing fantastic science. And indeed MSR is about fantastic science. Mars Sample Return is a great science mission, but for me, it’s also a voyage of exploration in the grand tradition. We all look forward to boots on Mars, but before sending humans, a round trip with robots will teach us a great deal. It’s a scale model for an eventual human exploration. It’s the first round trip to the surface of another planet.

David Parker: (21:37)
So let me take a few minutes just to explain the European Mars Program. Our two orbiters, Mars Express, ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter doing great science. In fact, just last week, ExoMars made the front page of the journal. Yes, next slide please. Now the Journal of Nature, Geosciences with the discovery of previously undetected, hydrogen chloride gas in the atmosphere of Mars. It’s mapped subsurface water to exquisite accuracy. And it also relays about half the data back from NASA’s existing rovers.

David Parker: (22:11)
So meanwhile, with our Russian partner, Roscosmos, we’re also preparing to launch next year, a rover mission. The Rosalind Franklin Rover is an astrobiology probe to search for evidence of past life using a drill penetrating six feet below the surface of Mars, and therefore below the damage caused by that radiation that Thomas mentioned, that destroys any organic chemicals close to the surface. And then we have our contributions to Mars Sample Return, comprising the earth return over to the sample fetch rover that Bobby has mentioned, and also the robotic arm for transferring those samples between the rovers and into that special container that Bobby showed us.

David Parker: (22:50)
So let me say a little bit more about the rover and the orbiter. So next slide, please. Here’s a picture of the sample fetch robot. It’s much smaller than Perseverance. It’s single task is to race out from the Sample Retrieval Lander in this relay race, find and collect those sample tubes and bring them back to the Lander. So compared to current rovers, it’s smaller, neat. It’s got to travel 10 times faster than current rovers, using its onboard intelligence. Development has already started with Airbus Defense and Space in the UK, building on know-how from the Rosalind Franklin Rover.

David Parker: (23:24)
So while the sample fetch rover is small and fast, here’s the Earth Return Orbiter, ERO for short. It’s simply huge, with a wingspan of about 120 feet is as big as an airliner. Launched an Ariane 64 rocket from a European spaceport. This six and a half ton cargo ship is propelled by both chemical rockets and the most powerful ion drive electric propulsion system ever used in a deep space mission. So it must scoop up the container, as Bobby described, in orbit around Mars, and then do the home run back to earth. So on its cargo deck will be NASA sample containment system, an earth entry vehicle that will land back on earth.

David Parker: (24:07)
So again, the Earth Return Orbiter is already under contract. We’re already building it with the European dream team, with extensive knowledge from deep space missions. Like the Rosetta comet chaser, BepiColombo, which is our mission on the way to Mercury, and also the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter itself. So in summary, I hope I’ve convinced you that the European Space Agency is also super excited to be part of this Mars Sample Return Campaign. It’s really the most extraordinary, mindbogglingly complicated, and will be history making, exploration campaign. But having said all that, you may also want to know why we so much wanted to do MSR? Why do we want to bring the samples back? So to answer that I would like to hand over to Mary Voytek from NASA HQ.

Mary Voytek: (24:55)
Thank you, David. Well, you’ve just heard details of this collaborative, multi-generational, truly bold mission, including that we sending a robotic astrobiologist. What’s astrobiology? It’s the study of how we get from materials from our star, all the way through the steps that it takes to build habitable planets and support of an environment, which life could emerge, to a verdant planet like earth. So that’s what astrobiology is about.

Mary Voytek: (25:31)
And it answers three very important questions. And those questions are displayed in this slide. Where did we come from? How did we evolve to inhabit the earth? And is there anybody else out there? This mission is going to look and address that final question. And how we’ve been prepping for this? Well, our strategy as astrobiologists has been to try to understand everything we possibly can about the biology here on earth. So how did life emerge? What are its requirements? What are the environmental conditions that can support life? Or what are those limits where you might be able to find life here on earth? And indeed, most of the places that we’ve looked, we have found life, no matter how harsh the environment is.

Mary Voytek: (26:14)
Can we go back to that other slide? Thank you. Maybe not. There we go. We combined all that we understand about what life means, and we mapped that on to other places in our solar system, and even beyond, to try to determine other potential habitable environments and therefore targets for our missions. Now, Mars has been a focus since the very beginning of us talking about where we might find life, and we’ve successfully flown orbiters, landers, and rovers to characterize Mars, and have studied environments related to Mars-like conditions here on earth. And in the next slide, I just want to share a couple of those with you.

Mary Voytek: (26:55)
So I’m a microbiologist by training and I’ve studied life in some of the harshest environments on earth. And these are just photos from a few of the places that I’ve been. The top three pictures are from the dry valleys of Antarctica near the McMurdo Sound. This environment is dry, extremely cold, and yet you can find organisms here, and they’re metabolizing and active. But it looks a lot more mineralogically like Mars as well. The two lower pictures are from [inaudible 00:27:29]. This is a place where I went with a number of scientists that were PIs on instruments, on the Curiosity Rover and on the ExoMars Rover that David just talked about. They used this environment again, which was very similar in temperature and mineralogical conditions to test their instruments. Put it through their paces, see if things could actually detect the chemicals and photograph the textures, and characterize the mineralogy of the environment as was needed in order for Curiosity, and in the future ExoMars to carry out its mission.

Mary Voytek: (28:07)
And now I mentioned the Curiosity Mission, and that has been an amazing one of our missions. Its original goal was to investigate habitability in Gale crater, or as my colleague, Conrad likes to say, it’s checking out the real estate. But in this case, instead of looking for good schools, or community services, Curiosity went up there to check out the climate, look for sources of energy, look for the elements that are the building blocks of life, and found a number of areas that would support life. Can I have the next slide please?

Mary Voytek: (28:48)
So in eight years of exploration, it found areas that there were clearly evidence of water. There were clearly evidence of chemicals that could be involved in energy transduction. And there were the elements that are needed. The primary ones, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. And as this periodic table is in the picture for, life also needs small amounts from other elements as well. And many of those were found in Gale crater as well. And that set us to select Jezero crater for this very important mission. So Perseverance is going to go to Jezero crater, it’s going to characterize the environment much like Curiosity did, but it’s going to start to look for evidence of past life.

Mary Voytek: (29:31)
Now, it has an incredible challenge. And if I could have my next slide, please. So the challenge is finding a biosignature. Biosignatures are evidence of life and they can take off the sorts of forms. They can be chemical, they can be structures, they can be modifications to the environment. And in general, one of the challenges are that many of the features that we see that are biosignatures, can only be produced by life. So if you look at the top left corner, the lower box is clearly a fossil of an ancient animal here on earth. But the upper picture just above it it that looks like a plant is actually formed by eight biological processes. That’s just precipitation of minerals. And yet it looks very much like life. And so there are other processes besides life that can make a biosignature, or something that looks like one.

Mary Voytek: (30:32)
This particular mission is finding itself in more of the gray area where ambiguous features are what we’ll be looking at. Those that could potentially be made by life. There are also processes that we know that may also produce them abiologically. But we’re going to have instruments, particularly when we bring the samples back, that will be able to distinguish that. So Ken who’s coming up next is going to talk a little bit about stromatolites, which are in the upper right corner. So I’m not talk much about that. But I will mention the figure in the lower right, is an example of the more complex measurements that we will be able to make, with the samples that we return from this very important mission. To try to really confirm if things that we believe the Perseverance observed could be evidence of ancient life.

Mary Voytek: (31:28)
And with that, I’d like to just say that we astrobiologists have been dreaming about this mission for decades, and I’d like to turn it over to my fellow astrobiologist and the Mars 2020 Deputy Scientists, Ken Williford.

Ken Williford: (31:44)
Thanks, Mary. And hello everyone. I want to say, like the others have, how fortunate I feel to be in this place and at this place in time. How excited I am to be literally on the eve of this historic and really this grand…

Ken Williford: (32:03)
-Of this historic and really grand cooperation. I mean, it’s an enormous undertaking that’s in front of us. And it has enormous scientific potential, potential to really be transformative. These are the truly big questions that we’re after. As you’ve heard, we know from prior rover missions and work done from Earth and from our orbiters around Mars, we have very strong evidence that Mars could have supported life in its distant past. The question is: was Mars ever a living planet? Is Earth, which we know clearly is friendly to life today and, as far as we can tell from the geologic record, has been friendly to life throughout its entire history, nearly its entire industry as far as we can tell, is that just an anomaly? Is it a fluke? Are we alone in the darkness spinning around the Sun, spinning around the galactic center, or are there other places out there that harbor life and potentially even in our own solar system?

Ken Williford: (33:17)
That’s what we’re setting out to do starting tomorrow when we get to the surface of Mars, but what are we going to look for? And to put it most basically, we’re looking for lifelike patterns in the exploration environment. Here you see an image, I’m also going to hold up the real deal here, I don’t know if I’ll have it in the same orientation for you and hopefully my camera can get some focus. This is, as Mary said, she used the word stromatolite, and so stromatolites … and this one originally would have been like this. When I picked it up like this, it was a dome shaped thing. And so you’re looking at the eroded top-down view of the internal structure of this thing and these finally wrinkled layers, beautiful organic looking, if you like, textures. We use this word “texture” in geology to basically mean shape. We sometimes say morphologies.

Ken Williford: (34:11)
These shapes, these lifelike patterns, that we see in the rocks are obviously part of it. What caused this pattern? Well, this fossil I picked up from an environment not at all dissimilar to where we’re going with Mars 2020. This was from a 2.7 billion year old lake deposit in western Australia, an area called the Tumbiana Formation. And so these rocks were deposited long before, billions of years before complex multicellular life arose on Earth, things like animals and plants. And so when we find fossils in rocks of this age, especially ancient age, they were made completely from microorganisms. These are single cell organisms that sometimes join together in communities that live in layers, one on top of the other, and sometimes exuding sticky substances from their cells in which sediment particles can be trapped and bound.

Ken Williford: (35:09)
Also, the organisms themselves can stimulate precipitation of minerals onto their little bodies, which then creates a fossil right there in place. And so you’re looking at a fossilized microbial mat that formed on the edge of a lake nearly three billion years ago. That’s the kind of thing we’re looking for. But, as Mary pointed out, looks can be deceiving, right? We have to be very careful not to fool ourselves. And so looks are almost never enough. And as Mary said also, we may get so lucky as to find something so beautifully preserved as this stromatolite that I showed you, but far more likely is that anything we find will be much more ambiguous. That’s typically the case on Earth as well. And so we have to look at the compositions. We’re looking for lifelike shapes and lifelike compositions, chemical composition, so the elements, the minerals, the molecules, the organic molecules that we know are associated with life. We’re looking for all those things occurring together.

Ken Williford: (36:10)
And this is why we have this incredibly capable scientific payload on our rover. But, this is only the beginning. Of course, as you’ve heard, the exciting part, all that engineering happens. We get the samples back on Earth someday. And we have folks on our team now, a group of people called the Returned Sample Science Participating Scientists, who are representing the interest of those future workers. And so I’ll pass it now to Libby Hausrath, who is one of our Returned Sample Science Participating Scientists, to tell you more about how all that’s going to work.

Elisabeth (Libby) Hausrath: (36:43)
Thank you, Ken. As others have said, I am very excited to be one of the Return Sample Scientists working on the Mars 2020 mission. My job is to represent the interest of these future scientists who will study these samples once they’re returned using cutting edge techniques in Earth’s laboratories. In selecting the samples, we’re going to try to address one of these main goals of the mission, which is to determine whether ancient life existed at Jezero Crater. We will use the instruments on the mission, this is an artist’s rendition of the SuperCam instrument, to select samples to try to be able to answer that question. As Mary mentioned, we will look for samples that have evidence of past habitable conditions. Next slide, please. This is an image showing the characteristics that can indicate past habitability, such as evidence of liquid water, which is needed for all life as we know it, raw materials, energy sources, and sufficiently favorable conditions. Next slide, please. We will also look for samples that have evidence of conditions that can preserve past evidence of life. Past evidence of life can include organics, minerals’ morphology and structure, chemistry and isotopes. And some materials, such as clay, minerals, and silica, are very good at preserving ancient life on Earth. And so we will look for these types of materials to sample on Mars. Next slide, please.

Elisabeth (Libby) Hausrath: (38:13)
These samples, with the potential past life that they may contain within them, represent an amazing opportunity for future scientists. And so I’d like to say a few words to future scientists who may be students or even children right now. We all know that studying science and doing science can sometimes be discouraging. Science is hard. Science is hard for everybody. Just because it’s hard for you, doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to be good at it. It might be that you aren’t as good at it yet as you will be. And more practice and more experience will be helpful. It might be that you are good at it right now, and it’s just hard. And so what I would like to say to the future scientists is that Perseverance is well-named. Perseverance is what it takes to be a scientist. And I would encourage everybody who’s interested in studying science to please persevere.

Elisabeth (Libby) Hausrath: (39:07)
If you feel discouraged, perhaps reach out to a mentor or seek peer support because when these samples come back, we need the best scientists from all backgrounds to help us work on these amazing scientific questions. Next slide, please. Because when the samples come back, we will be able to analyze them here in the best laboratories on Earth. This is an image of a synchrotron facility. And for scale, those are cars in the parking lot. We can’t take this to Mars with us, but what we can do is bring the samples back. As you have seen, the samples will be about the size of a piece of chalk, and we will be able to analyze them using techniques that require such small amounts, it’s difficult to see. This is an image of one of our samples that was analyzed at the synchrotron on the tip of the capillary tube that is so small, it’s hard to see in this photo. When we can analyze these samples using these fine scale techniques back here on earth, that is when the story really begins. Back to you, Marina.

Marina Jurica: (40:13)
Thank you so much, Libby. And thank you so much to all of our panelist presenters. We are now ready to take media questions. Remember to press *1 to get put in the queue. And please direct your questions to one of the panelists. We’re also taking questions through the hashtag Countdown to Mars. Our first question comes from Jeff Foust with SpaceNews. Good afternoon, Jeff.

Jeff Foust: (40:40)
Good afternoon. A question for Thomas or Bobby: you mentioned the independent review board report that included a number of findings and recommendations about potential changes to the architecture, cost, schedule for Mars Sample Return. I wanted to see if you can provide an update in terms of what NASA is doing to review or implement those recommendations and when we might see any sort of changes or decisions not to change the overall architecture for Mars Sample Return. Thanks.

Bobby Braun: (41:11)
Thanks, Jeff. That’s a great question. Very well informed. The board that Thomas referenced was an outstanding board, and we’re taking the findings and recommendations from that report very seriously. The program now, the flight missions that I was referring to that are in development, we’re in what’s called Phase A. And Phase A is part of the formulation of these missions. We don’t have a firm baseline at NASA for the way we’re going to do these missions until the end of Phase A. And so as part of our Phase A studies, we’ve incorporated the findings and recommendations from that board report. We’re still looking at a number of trades. We were looking at a number of different trades ourselves, and we’ve added to that trade space based on the report. And we plan to respond fully to all of those actions by the end of this phase that we’re in now. And that’ll be somewhere around October of 2021.

Marina Jurica: (42:16)
Thank you, Jeff. And thank you, Bobby. Our next caller is Mike Wall with space.com. Good afternoon, Mike.

Mike Wall: (42:24)
Yeah. Hi, thank you all. And, yeah, I mean, best of luck tomorrow to everyone. I’m interested in … There’s one aspect of the return to Earth that I don’t think we’ve talked about that much, and that’s where these samples are going to be housed, the new sample return facility. Is there any news about what the planning for that involves at the moment and what the timeline is for when that facility is going to be green-lit and built and what it’s going to look like? What sort of buildings are you using as a model for that facility down the road, do you think? Thank you.

Thomas Zurbuchen: (43:03)
I’m going to start by answering the question, I’ll kick it over to Bobby for more technical details. But, you should notice as part of the response, as part of that Phase A work that Bobby referred to, we’re also looking at the ground systems now. And we’re kicking that off as a really deliberate study, looking with the international community at what needs to happen, considering all the elements that are there. And remember, when they hit the ground, from the beginning, we want to make sure that we are protected against all eventualities.

Thomas Zurbuchen: (43:36)
And needless to say, there’s a lot of knowledge we can gain from other people who were dealing with unknown chemicals, unknown agents. And that’s the first phase, the sample retrieving facility phase. And then there’s a process by which we release those samples with a very, very high likelihood and very freely according to the various principles that we’re setting out. We’re right in the middle of this. And just like we said, this is not yet concluded. But, Bobby, anything you wanted to add?

Bobby Braun: (44:13)
I’ll just very quickly add just the timeframe here, right, so the new missions that we’re talking about will launch in ’26 or ’28. The samples will come back to Earth in the early 2030s. There’s a good bit of … There’s a decade between now and the time that the samples would be needed to go into the facility. We are looking at both modification to existing facilities and creation of new facilities, but that’s a study that’s just ongoing.

Marina Jurica: (44:44)
Thank you to Dr. Z and to Bobby. Next caller is Keith Cowing from NASA Watch. Good afternoon, Keith.

Keith Cowing: (44:53)
Good afternoon. Can you hear me?

Marina Jurica: (44:54)
Yes, we can hear you.

Keith Cowing: (44:55)
Okay. Dr. Zurbuchen, with regard to the exploration of Mars, just as with the case of the Moon, there’s a growing international presence in orbit on the surface. Indeed, the UAE and China joined the Mars club just last week. But, just as things are becoming more complex with lunar exploration, wouldn’t the issues of planetary protection, orbital traffic management, communications, and science collaboration demonstrate a need for the establishment of what many people would call good practices on Mars, especially in advance of possible commercial human missions. Specifically, should something akin to the Artemis Accords, which were developed for the Moon, also be a good thing to think about establishing for the exploration of Mars?

Thomas Zurbuchen: (45:35)
Thanks so much, Keith, for your question. You are, of course, correct. That is that the exploration of Mars is one that has many players now, and we’re so excited about the two missions that arrived only days or weeks ago. We celebrate all peaceful exploration of outer space, and especially as it’s done going off individual countries spending their own treasure towards benefiting the science community as a whole. We’re really glad for that. It is also true that as we already have a number of spacecraft in orbit around Mars, for example, we’ve had actually a number of discussions and bilateral discussions with the community overall, just to make sure that these assets are safe as they’re in orbit around it. And so it’s discussions of that type that the community overall needs to really focus on just for the benefit of all players that are in orbit right now.

Thomas Zurbuchen: (46:32)
It’s also true that with the Artemis Accords, as you said, Jeff, sorry, Keith, of course, is that with the Artemis Accords we’re really seeking to create a platform for that one with multiple signees already in the international community. I think, as we’re getting experience from the Moon, it’s very much worth thinking about what the framework is in which we expand that going forward, especially, as we would expect because of the excitement of Mars, there will be multiple players still that will enter the community of Mars explorers going forward.

Marina Jurica: (47:14)
Thank you so much, Keith. And thank you to Dr. Z. Remember to press *1 to get into the queue if you are on the phone lines. We are now going to turn to a social media question. Jeanie on Facebook asks: how long will Perseverance be collecting those samples on Mars? Ken, would you like to take that?

Ken Williford: (47:34)
Sure. Great question. We hope for a good long time. We have a primary mission, sometimes called the prime mission, of one Mars year. And that’s about two Earth years. And so we’re all signed up to a mission that allows us to explore the Jezero system for about two Earth years, collecting samples and assembling a returnable cache of-

Ken Williford: (48:03)
Samples and assembling a returnable cache of samples. If we’re fortunate enough to have a functioning spacecraft and all the resources we need to do to accomplish it, we’d like to continue that exploration. In fact, onto the crater rim and, and even beyond Jezero, where there are some incredibly exciting rocks that are quite different from the rocks in Jezero crater, and would allow us to massively expand the scientific value of our cash.

Ken Williford: (48:32)
That could be a number of years, but as you’ve heard from the others on the panel, we’ve got a ways to go before that Sample Retrieval Lander arrives.

Marina Jurica: (48:44)
Thank you, Ken. Our next caller is Ken Kremer from Space UpClose. Good afternoon, Ken.

Jeff Foust: (48:52)
Hi, good afternoon. Thank you. Thanks for taking my question and good luck again to everybody. I have a question about the facility. You already have the Lunar and Planetary Lab. I’m curious, why do you need a new facility? If you could go into that a little bit. Also, why is the Earth Return Orbiter the biggest one ever sent to Mars? Thanks.

Bobby Braun: (49:18)
Yeah, okay. Thank you for your question. What I tried to say earlier was that we were considering multiple options for the facility, including modification of existing facilities and the potential for a new facility. There will need to be in place protocols for the curation of these samples that’s a bit different than the existing protocols, for instance, from lunar samples, because of the science and the origin of the samples themselves.

Bobby Braun: (49:51)
In terms of the Earth Return Orbiter, since I’m speaking, I’ll start and I’ll kick it over to David in just a minute. But the size of the solar rays is driven by the timeline constraints from Earth to Mars and the fact that it’s a low thrust propulsion system that allows flexibility for us to maneuver and rendezvous with the sample system.

Bobby Braun: (50:15)
David, did you want to add to that in any way?

David Parker: (50:18)
Yeah. Maybe the simplest way of answering the question is say, it’s the laws of physics, because this is the first time a Mars spacecraft doesn’t have to just go to Mars, get into orbit around Mars. It’s got to leave the orbit of Mars and come back again. So, all the propellant you need to come back, we have to take with us on the way out there.

David Parker: (50:37)
Which is why the spacecraft [inaudible 00:50:40] is actually in two pieces. It has a stage that is left behind after the initial orbit insertion at Mars. That’s the big chemical propulsion module. That does the first orbit insertion. Then, we spiral down with the electric propulsion system, so a low Mars orbit, do sample capture process, and then spiral back out again, and the depart for Earth. Because we have so many more maneuvers to do than any previous Mars mission, and that drives the size of it.

Marina Jurica: (51:13)
Thank you, Bobby and David. Our next question on social media is Aaron on Facebook from his nine-year-old son. If you find any sort of life form, what would be the next step? Mary, would you like to take that?

Mary Voytek: (51:30)
Sure, I’d be happy to. I think as we’ve tried to show you, it’s going to be a real challenge finding definitive evidence of past life. We’re not really equipped in this mission to actually look for something that is living at present. We don’t think that we would find it in this particular site where we’re going to investigate.

Mary Voytek: (51:55)
This is a great site for an ancient lake bed, where we could find evidence of ancient life. It’s going to take the measurements that we make actually on the planet, as well as measurements made by many scientists around the world when the samples are brought back.

Mary Voytek: (52:13)
It’s also going to take a lot of discussion, because as we mentioned, some of the things that we observed can be deceiving because it can come from life, but it can also come from something that isn’t related to life. We’ve got our work cut out for us, not just in collecting the right samples, but once they come back, as well.

Mary Voytek: (52:33)
I just want you to know that NASA, NASA scientists and all the scientists around the world that are working on this are going to apply the highest rigor in the analysis of this sample before we release any interpretation one way or the other.

Thomas Zurbuchen: (52:52)
I just wanted to add something for this nine-year-old future scientist. Let me just tell you what my first question will be if we found life somewhere else. The first question would be: is it the same life we have on Earth, or is it entirely different?

Thomas Zurbuchen: (53:09)
Let me tell you why I’m asking that question. There’s a really important fact about life on Earth, which is, all life is related. Can you imagine that? Whether you have a mouse, whether you have some cell things, or a giraffe, or a human being. All life is related somehow. If you look under a microscope, life looks kind of the same. So, for me, the first question would be: is that life that was found there the different life, or really the same life again?

Thomas Zurbuchen: (53:41)
If you go from one thing to many things, it’s just a huge step forward. I still remember the first time we found planetary systems around another star. The only solar system we knew was our solar system, and in the mid-90s, well before you were born, we went to many planetary systems. We learned so much, not just about these systems, but our own system. It’s that kind of huge transition that we would focus on.

Marina Jurica: (54:11)
Thank you, Mary and Dr. Z. Our next question along the same lines about focusing on searching for that past life. Holden asks: would you let the public know if evidence of past life was found? If so, how soon after finding it?

Thomas Zurbuchen: (54:29)
One of the things we really believe in at NASA, and I know our European Space Agency friends are exactly the same, and that is that the work that we’re finding, the research that we’re finding, will be made public. The answer, therefore, is absolutely.

Thomas Zurbuchen: (54:42)
We would, with a due diligence that we always use in science, and are peer reviewed, that it’s so critical to make sure that it’s not an individual’s opinion alone, but really, work that reflects the scrutiny that we want than science, that once we’re through that gate, of course, we would communicate to the entire scientific and abroad community. So, absolutely.

Marina Jurica: (55:07)
David, would you like to add to that?

David Parker: (55:10)
Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. I mean, one of the aspects of Mars sample return, why it’s so important, is that we’ll have samples that won’t just be studied by one scientist in one laboratory, but by scientists in laboratories all around the world. Because if we believe we found evidence of ancient life, that’s a very extraordinary claim, and therefore, we need extraordinary evidence, and we would expect different laboratories studying, in different ways, the same samples, to give us the same message. If only one laboratory says yes, and all the others say no, then we have to keep looking.

Marina Jurica: (55:47)
Thank you, Dr. Z and David. Next, Mark on Facebook asks: how will the future missions find these samples? Wouldn’t dust cover them? Bobby.

Bobby Braun: (55:58)
Yeah, that’s actually a great question and something that we’ve studied at depth. The simple answer is no. When Perseverance places the samples down on the Mars surface, we’re going to know precisely where Perseverance is, and so, where the samples are placed. There may be some dust that accumulates, but sample tubes themselves are not going to move across the surface. They’ll be basically tagged, located, for all time. Then, we will land the sample retrieval Lander and the sample fetch rover as close to those locations as possible.

Marina Jurica: (56:38)
Thank you, Bobby. Our next question comes from Nathan on Instagram asking: what will the scientist’s approach be when the samples return to earth? Will they ever be displayed in a museum? Libby, would you take that one?

Libby: (56:53)
Sure, I’d be happy to. To echo many of the things that have been said about the importance of multiple lines of evidence, scientists will use one of the [inaudible 00:57:07] the bio-signature figure that I did, is that one of the things scientists will be looking for is multiple lines of evidence for life.

Libby: (57:16)
I don’t know, as others have talked about, the plans for the sample are still in the work. I imagine that it will be possible to see some in some cases.

Marina Jurica: (57:29)
Great. Thank you so much, Libby. Darius on Twitter asks: how will information from this mission help with the challenge of getting humans to Mars? Dr. Z.

Thomas Zurbuchen: (57:43)
We’re really excited about this mission because in so many ways, it opens doors for new technologies that are exactly doing what is being asked, for us to learn how to get humans to Mars. In part, that has to do with the precise landing technology that Bobby already talked about. It’s also about the MOXIE instrument, which of course is trying to take carbon dioxide, the atmosphere of Mars, and making breathable oxygen out of it, or oxygen we could be using for fuel.

Thomas Zurbuchen: (58:15)
But I think the other thing I also want to talk about is, whenever we land with humans, we want to know what we’re going to meet, in terms of the history, but also in terms of the composition overall. The samples, in many ways, even from that perspective, are really adding important information to address that question. The Perseverance mission, especially together with its Mars sample return partner, with all the technologies that were being talked about earlier, really are a step in the direction of human exploration to Mars.

Marina Jurica: (58:48)
Thank you so much, Dr. Z. A truly exciting time ahead of us for sure. Well, we unfortunately can’t answer all the media questions on air. For those of you with additional questions, please call JPL’s digital news and media office. We’ll also continue to answer social media questions online. Thank you for your questions and thank you to our panelists for joining us today.

Marina Jurica: (59:11)
Perseverance is set to land on Mars tomorrow with commentary beginning at 11:15 AM Pacific Standard Time, 2:15 PM Eastern Standard Time. We are offering lots of ways to ride along with us. To join the virtual NASA social and virtual guest events, register for the Mission to Mars student challenge, and livestream the Mars landing, visit go.nasa.gov/Mars2020Toolkit. For those of you interested in a deeper dive, we have a new press kit available online, too, with lots of information and graphics describing the rover and its mission.

Marina Jurica: (59:50)
There, you’ll also have a chance to sign up to send your name to Mars on NASA’s next flight to the red planet and put yourself a right into the action with our Perseverance photo booth. You can pose next to the rover, place yourself in our mission control, and even see what you might look like taking a selfie on the red planet. Again, it’s all available at go.nasa.gov/Mars2020Toolkit.

Marina Jurica: (01:00:17)
If you’re on social media, join the conversation with the mission on Facebook and Twitter. Follow @NASAPersevere and use the hashtag #CountdownToMars. Thank you so much for watching and joining us this afternoon and go, Perseverance.

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