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NASA rover lands on Mars to look for signs of ancient life
A NASA rover has landed on Mars in an epic quest to bring back rocks that could answer whether life ever existed on the red planet
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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A NASA rover streaked through the orange Martian sky and landed on the planet Thursday, accomplishing the riskiest step yet in an epic quest to bring back rocks that could answer whether life ever existed on Mars.

Ground controllers at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, leaped to their feet, thrust their arms in the air and cheered in both triumph and relief on receiving confirmation that the six-wheeled Perseverance had touched down on the red planet, long a deathtrap for incoming spacecraft.

“Now the amazing science starts,” a jubilant Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science mission chief, said at a news conference, where he theatrically ripped up the contingency plan in the event of a failure and threw the document over his shoulders.

The landing marks the third visit to Mars in just over a week. Two spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates and China swung into orbit around Mars on successive days last week. All three missions lifted off in July to take advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars, journeying some 300 million miles in nearly seven months.

Perseverance, the biggest, most advanced rover ever sent by NASA, became the ninth spacecraft since the 1970s to successfully land on Mars, every one of them from the U.S.

The car-size, plutonium-powered vehicle arrived at Jezero Crater, hitting NASA’s smallest and trickiest target yet: a 5-by-4-mile strip on an ancient river delta full of pits, cliffs and rocks. Scientists believe that if life ever flourished on Mars, it would have happened 3 billion to 4 billion years ago, when water still flowed on the planet.

Over the next two years, Percy, as it is nicknamed, will use its 7-foot arm to drill down and collect rock samples containing possible signs of bygone microscopic life. Three to four dozen chalk-size samples will be sealed in tubes and set aside to be retrieved eventually by another rover and brought homeward by another rocket ship.

The goal is to get them back to Earth as early as 2031.

Scientists hope to answer one of the central questions of theology, philosophy and space exploration.

“Are we alone in this sort of vast cosmic desert, just flying through space, or is life much more common? Does it just emerge whenever and wherever the conditions are ripe?” said deputy project scientist Ken Williford. “We’re really on the verge of being able to potentially answer these enormous questions.”

China’s spacecraft includes a smaller rover that will also seek evidence of life, if it makes it safely down from orbit in May or June.

Two older NASA landers are still humming along on Mars: 2012′s Curiosity rover and 2018′s InSight.

Perseverance was on its own during its descent, a maneuver often described by NASA as “seven minutes of terror.”

Flight controllers waited helplessly as the preprogrammed spacecraft hit the thin Martian atmosphere at 12,100 mph (19,500 kph), or 16 times the speed of sound, slowing as it plummeted. It released its 70-foot (21-meter) parachute and then used a rocket-steered platform known as a sky crane to lower the rover the final 60 or so feet (18 meters) to the surface.

It took a nail-biting 11 1/2 minutes for the signal confirming the landing to reach Earth, setting off back-slapping and fist-bumping among flight controllers wearing masks against the coronavirus.

Perseverance promptly sent back two grainy, black-and-white photos of Mars’ pockmarked, pimply-looking surface, the rover’s shadow visible in the frame of one picture.

“Take that, Jezero!” a controller called out.

NASA said that the descent was flawless and that the rover came down in a “parking lot” — a relatively flat spot amid hazardous rocks. Hours after the landing, Matt Wallace, NASA deputy project manager, reported that the spacecraft was in great shape.

Mars has proved a treacherous place for the world’s spacefaring nations, the U.S. included. In the span of less than three months in 1999, a U.S. spacecraft was destroyed upon entering orbit because engineers had mixed up metric and English units, and an American lander crashed on the surface after its engines cut out prematurely.

President Joe Biden tweeted congratulations over the landing, saying: “Today proved once again that with the power of science and American ingenuity, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.”

NASA is teaming up with the European Space Agency to bring the rocks home. Perseverance’s mission alone costs nearly $3 billion.

The only way to confirm — or rule out — signs of past life is to analyze the samples in the world’s best labs. Instruments small enough to be sent to Mars wouldn’t have the necessary precision.

“It’s really the most extraordinary, mind-boggingly complicated and will-be history-making exploration campaign,” said David Parker, the European agency’s director of human and robotic exploration.

Former astronaut and one-time NASA science chief John Grunsfeld tweeted that Perseverance’s landing was “exactly the good news and inspiration we need right now.”

“Reminds us all that we will persevere COVID and political turmoil and that the best is yet to come,” he said.

Ricketts praises community efforts to grow workforce
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Gov. Pete Ricketts praised the community of Hastings for efforts to develop Nebraska’s workforce, which fits into his four-pillar plan to grow the state.

In order to develop that workforce, schools have been working with manufacturers to promote technical training for jobs currently available in the state, creating a pipeline of skilled workers to fill those positions.

“This is a really important part of how we continue to grow our state,” Ricketts said. “The community of Hastings has been a leader in that pipeline.”

The other pillars of Ricketts’ plan include removing obstacles to success, improving the tax climate and telling Nebraska’s story.

lbeahm / Laura Beahm/Tribune  

A ribbon cutting was held Thursday to celebrate the completion of the $10.6 million expansion and renovation of the Hamilton Building at Central Community College-Hastings.

Ricketts visited Central Community College-Hastings on Thursday for the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Hamilton Building, home to CCC’s advanced manufacturing design technology and welding technology programs.

A 17,000-square-foot addition was constructed on the south side of the existing building to house the AMDT program. A 15,000-square-foot renovation of the original building now houses the welding technology program.

Current CCC-Hastings Campus President Jerry Wallace said much of the planning for the project was completed under former campus president Bill Hitesman, who also attended the ceremony. Wallace said they tried to keep as much of the original structure as possible while adding the new technology needed to be successful with the program.

“It’s a very exciting day for everyone involved with this project,” he said.

lbeahm / Laura Beahm/Tribune  

Central Community College-Hastings campus President Jerry Wallace speaks Thursday before a ribbon cutting for the Hamilton Building.

The total cost of the project was $10.3 million, of which $5.3 million came from college reserves to avoid long-term debt.

Dean Moors, executive director of the Central Community College Foundation, said about 200 donors gave a total of $5.5 million for the facility. The construction was completed using the first $5 million, he said, and the remaining funds were placed into an endowment to provide scholarships to students.

“This will make a difference in the lives of students, manufacturing and the community,” he said. “It’s exciting to see this state-of-the-art facility now open.”

CCC President Matt Gotschall thanked Ricketts for the support provided by the state as well as the communities that provide support to the college.

“I’d like to thank every taxpayer in our 25-county area,” he said.

lbeahm / Laura Beahm/Tribune  

A ribbon cutting was held Thursday for the Hamilton Building at Central Community College-Hastings. The building houses Advanced Manufacturing Design Technology.

Using facilities like the Hamilton Building, CCC hopes to recruit more students into its AMDT and welding technology programs, which will grow a skilled workforce. Hastings’ manufacturing career pathways team has been working to introduce middle school and high school students to the variety of technical careers.

Ricketts said that while traveling across the state, he has heard a common concern among manufacturers about finding employees to fill open positions.

“We want to make sure our young people know we’ve got great careers right here in our state,” he said. “It’s a way to connect students to great paying jobs we have across the state.”

Council to act on mask policy Monday
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When members of the Hastings City Council meet on Monday, they will act on a policy that would require that masks continue to be worn until the 14-day daily rolling average for the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, is two or fewer new cases per day for the city.

That was the metric council members generally agreed on for wording to be placed on Monday’s agenda after more than an hour of discussion on the topic during their work session on Thursday.

Masks would not be required as long as the case-per-day number for the city stays at two or lower.

The 14-day timeframe was an adaptation of a recommendation from the South Heartland District Health Department.

Health Department Executive Director Michele Bever was present at the work session. James Lawler, director of the International Programs and Innovation for the Global Center for Health Security at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, participated in the discussion remotely.

Another recommendation the health department made was that the mask policy be kept in place until 70% of the population is vaccinated.

Council members thought that benchmark would be too far off to accomplish and the same people who oppose the mask requirement would be likely to oppose getting the vaccine.

Lawler said it is likely enough vaccinations would be available for the entire population by this summer.

Two or fewer cases per day equals eight cases per 100,000. On Wednesday that 14-day daily rolling average per 100,000 was 12.3 new cases for Adams County and 15.2 for all four counties of the South Heartland District Health District — Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls.

Adams County was below four new cases per 100,000 at the end of July, but by mid-November was averaging about 112 new cases per 100,000.

Thursday’s discussion came after council members voted 8-0 on Nov. 23, 2020, to approve Emergency Ordinance No. 4650, which authorized the city’s mask policy. It went into effect three days later.

The ordinance is set to expire on Feb. 23.

According to the ordinance, everyone 5 years of age and older is required to wear a face covering over their mouth and nose while indoors in premises open to the general public. There are some exceptions to that policy.

“Generally, if you can’t maintain the 6-foot social distancing a mask should be worn,” City Administrator Dave Ptak said. “It doesn’t mandate everybody has to wear a mask.”

For instance, he said, at the City Building employees don’t wear masks if they are working alone in their own offices.

“It’s just common sense is what we’re asking,” he said. “We’re not trying to create a Gestapo state.”

Violating the ordinance is a misdemeanor with an initial penalty of a $25 fine. Each violation may be considered a separate offense.

Police Chief Adam Story told council members on Nov. 23 it is his department’s philosophy to emphasize education or warnings rather than issue citations.

Story said during the work session his officers have written zero tickets to individuals not wearing masks.

Councilman Butch Eley, who will be absent during Monday’s meeting, stated he was against extending the mask policy.

In fact, he favored not putting the issue on Monday’s agenda and simply letting the policy expire.

“I think we’ve done a good job with what we’ve done,” he said. “I would rather see us requesting community support for masking. Not mandating, but asking for that; saying, ‘Hey, we’re past these (high) numbers we really ought to be wearing a mask.’ I think it’s getting time that we ought to let the community decide what we are going to do.”

Councilwoman Joy Huffaker said most feedback she has received has been against continuing the mask policy.

“So if compliance is already an issue now and we keep extending it and extending it people are just going to get mad and be like ‘I’m done,’ ” she said. “I’m hearing a lot of that in the community — that they’re tired of being told what to do. They want the ability to make their own decisions.”

Eley said about 75% of the feedback he has received has been for getting rid of the policy and 25% wanting to continue it.

Council members Shawn Hartmann and Ginny Skutnik each said the feedback they have received has been the opposite of the ratio Eley mentioned.

“I’ve heard from businesses that thanked us because it takes the monkey off of their back so they don’t have to be the bad guy,” Skutnik said.

Councilman Chuck Rosenberg said at his business, City Iron and Metal, customers always blame the business for unpopular policies even when it involves regulations handed down from government entities.

The Hastings City Council’s action on Monday comes after the Grand Island and Kearney councils voted to end the mask policies in those cities.

Hartmann said that could be a benefit for Hastings.

“I know Grand Island and Kearney have already visited this, and I don’t want to say we should follow anything about what they are doing, but I think it stands to reason we should pay attention to what they did,” he said. “There were people who wanted to extend it, and that got put down, too. So if you’re a business owner in Hastings and we extend it, will those customers come to Hastings because we have a mandate in place? Everybody automatically assumes ‘mandate and the people run away.’ What about the people it will possibly bring in? I don’t know if it is a cancel-out situation. Everybody is obviously getting a little different feedback.”

Also during the work session, council members:

  • Received an update from Utility Manager Kevin Johnson about the electrical outages earlier this week, which included two areas of the city for 30-60 minutes.
  • Received a presentation on the final report for the city’s housing study.
  • Discussed establishing a date for the council retreat.
  • Discussed a personnel issue in executive session.

South Heartland records 13 new cases of COVID-19
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The South Heartland Health District recorded a total of 13 new cases of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, Tuesday through Thursday.

The new cases — 12 in Adams County and one in Webster County — bring to 4,422 the total number of cases among district residents since the first was reported on March 18, 2020.

The health district includes Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties. To date, Adams County has recorded 2,878 cases of COVID-19, compared to 719 for Clay County, 488 for Nuckolls County and 337 for Webster County.

As of Wednesday, 4,203 of the 4,422 cases among district residents to date had been classified as recovered.

The COVID-19 death toll among district residents stands at 55.

In a news release Thursday night, Michele Bever, the South Heartland District Health Department executive director, said district residents are making progress against COVID-19 but the disease is far from being conquered, so they must keep up their efforts to thwart further spread of the virus and any variants that may arrive in the region.

“We averaged just 4.7 (new) cases per day over the last seven days, which continues to move in the right direction toward low community spread levels,” Bever said. “But we aren’t there yet. This rate equates to an average of 10.4 cases per 100,000, and our goal for low community spread is to reach a level of fewer than eight cases per 100,000 population. We shouldn’t abandon what is working well until we reach and maintain low community spread. What is working well is the combination of all of the tools in our prevention toolbox.”

Given the overall population of the health district — about 45,000 people — the target of fewer than eight new cases per day per 100,000 population equates to fewer than four new cases per day.

“We need to continue to control the level of infection in our communities, which will keep in check the numbers of hospitalizations and deaths due to the COVID-19,” Bever said. “This is particularly important with the threat of COVID-19 infections from new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that have spread to the United States from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.”

According to the district’s online data dashboard, a total of 197 first doses and 199 second doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered by the health district or its health care partners Monday through Thursday.

To date, 4,399 district residents have received at least their first dose of vaccine through the health department or partners, and 1,918 have received both doses of the two-dose regimen.

Both vaccines now available — the Pfizer and BioNTech product and the Moderna product — require two doses.

Bever said the vaccination numbers shown on the data dashboard don’t include the district’s long-term care facility residents and staff, who received their shots through a federal pharmacy program for long-term care.

The long-term care vaccinations add another 875 doses that have been administered locally, according to the reports the health department has seen, Bever said.

“Vaccine doses also started coming into our health district last week through the federal retail pharmacy program,” she said. “To promote local coordination of these two separate vaccine efforts, we are working closely with the pharmacies in our area that were selected for the launch of this federal program. Eventually, both programs will be using the same registration and scheduling processes being spearheaded at the state level.”

To register for vaccination, click on the red ribbon at the top of the SHDHD home page at southheartlandhealth.org to get to the most up-to-date information on COVID-19 vaccine. Next, click on the picture of the vaccine to start your vaccine registration in the Nebraska vaccine registration and administration (VRAS) system.

Those needing assistance with registration should contact the Nebraska State Vaccine hotline at 833-998-2275. Individuals 60 and over can contact Midland Area Agency on Aging for assistance at 402-463-4565, ext. 499.

South Heartland currently is working through Phase 1B under the state’s vaccination plan, which calls for vaccination for the general population of senior citizens age 65 and up, plus other adults with high-risk underlying health conditions and certain categories of essential workers.

The work has been hampered this week by extreme winter weather across a broad swath of the United States, which has interfered with vaccine delivery logistics.

“Our vaccination focus continues to be individuals age 65+. Unfortunately, our vaccine shipments of first doses have not arrived this week due to weather disruptions,” Bever said. “Please be patient. We and our partners will begin rescheduling those appointments as soon as we are notified the vaccine has shipped.”