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HARI SREENIVASAN: Later tonight the NASA MAVEN spacecraft is expected to complete
a 10-month voyage to Mars.
Once it’s placed into orbit, NASA scientists plan to gather information about the red planet’s atmosphere — information
they hope will offer clues about our own planet’s climate. For more on the mission significance, yesterday I spoke with the
NewsHour’s Miles O’Brien.
Why are space nuts, Mars nerds, all so excited for Sunday night?
MILES O’BRIEN: Well this is all part of the big tapestry, if you will, of laying the ground work for one
day putting human boots on Mars — we hope. You just don’t fly off in a rocket and land there. You need to learn about
the soil, the ground.
And in this case, the atmosphere. One of the big questions, the overriding questions, which trouble scientists and which
has a lot to do about future exploration of Mars, is, what happened to the planet over the past 3 billion years?
It used to be warm and wet and now it’s awfully dry and awfully cold. What happened along the way? Understanding what’s
going on in the fringes of the atmosphere, which is what MAVEN will do, will help scientists understand what happened.
Did the solar wind kind of blow the atmosphere away? Was that a part of what happened to this planet as it went through
kind of the ultimate climate change.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So, there are going to be multiple orbiters around this planet if the United States
successfully maneuvers this satellite into the right orbit and then on Tuesday India has one, the Manglayaan project, that
hopefully they’ll succeed as well.
MILES O’BRIEN: Yeah, if everybody succeeds, if the U.S. of MAVEN and the Indians succeed with their first
interplanetary mission, which is an exciting thing in its own right, that would put five craft in orbit around Mars doing
all kinds of work scientifically.
Looking at the planet itself, obtaining imagery, Mass Spectrometry, looking at the solar wind, ionization, a whole host
of things, the magnetic field, and also assisting what’s on the ground.
We have two rovers on the ground, Opportunity and Curiosity — both NASA crafts — that are doing their scientific
On the one hand, some of these satellites serve as relays, communication relays for the rovers on the ground, and also
the science that they conduct on the ground is compared to the science that is done in orbit and that helps scientists make
comparisons which are useful.
Incidentally, Hari, on October 19th there’s a comet that’s going to nearly strike Mars and there was some concern that
these craft might be in harm’s way.
Fortunately, that won’t be the case, but there is a good chance they might get some imagery and certainly some interesting
science about what happens when a comet enters an atmosphere.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So, all this information from all these missions means what? Humans will set foot on
Mars in a couple of decades?
MILES O’BRIEN: That’s the long-range plan. The devil, of course, is in the details and of course the budget,
but no one thinks it’s a wise idea to go to Mars without laying the ground work scientifically and robotically.
That’s what we’ve been seeing in a systematic way for a number of years now going back to the pathfinder mission on Mars.
It’s kind of a two-track thing, on the one hand scientists are getting goals that come strictly out of the robotic missions,
which are useful to helping them understand, ‘are we alone in the universe’ — ‘was there a second genesis of life on
Mars’ is a fundamentally good question separate from whether we put human beings on the planet.
But ultimately those same scientists will tell you that a geologist on the ground with a hammer and the ability to chip
a rock away here and there can do in a matter of hours what a robot would take weeks to do.
So, the idea that scientists may one day be there on the ground may be the only way that we’ll answer all these scientific
questions and plus it’s a big part of the overall picture of exploring the cosmos and wondering if in fact human beings are
ever going to leave this planet in a meaningful way.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, Miles O’Brien, thanks so much for joining us.
MILES O’BRIEN: You’re welcome, Hari.
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the possibility appeared first on PBS NewsHour.