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Scientists Excited After Safe Mars Landing


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


Imagine sending your baby 422 million miles through space and then finding out that it made it safely to the surface of Mars.


RICHARD KORNFELD: Phoenix has landed. Phoenix has landed. Welcome to the northern plains of Mars.

SMITH: NPR's Joe Palca was at the lab for yesterday's landing.

JOE PALCA: A staggering number of things have to go just right to slow a spacecraft down from 12,000 miles an hour to five miles an hour in just seven minutes. That's why everyone here at JPL refers to this as the seven minutes of terror.

MONTAGNE: Atmospheric entry on my mark. Five, four, three, two, one. Mark.

PALCA: Unidentified Man #1: Fifty meters. Thirty meters. Twenty-seven meters. Twenty meters. Fifteen meters. Standing by for touch down. Touch down signal detected.

PALCA: Unidentified Man #2: So how'd it go?



SMITH: Unidentified Woman: Yes.

SMITH: Did you see it? Unbelievable. Fabulous. Picture perfect. Picture perfect.

BARRY GOLDSTEIN: It was better than we could've possibly wished for. Everything we wanted in the telemetry. Everything locked up the way we wanted it. We rehearse - over and over again we rehearse all the problems. And none of them occurred. It went perfectly, just the way we designed it.

PALCA: Both men warned that the real celebration would have to wait until managers could be certain the lander's solar panels had opened. Without solar panels to recharge them, the batteries on the lander would only last about 30 hours. But the wait wasn't very long.


PALCA: Peter Smith admits the landing site looks a little, well, boring.

SMITH: I know it looks a little like a parking lot...


SMITH: ...but that's a safe place to land, by gosh. And there are not any big rocks. I think we really, really nailed it. That was the place we were looking for and that's what we found. Now, that makes it exactly the place we want to be, because underneath this surface, I guarantee you, is...


SMITH: ...ice. There's ice under this surface. It doesn't look like it. You don't see any ice, but it's down there.

PALCA: While it can't find life directly, Phoenix will look for the building blocks of life and for evidence that the conditions on Mars could, just possibly, be suitable for living organisms.

SMITH: This is a scientist's dream, right here on this landing site.

PALCA: Joe Palca, NPR News, Pasadena. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.