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'On our way to Mars': NASA rover will look for signs of life

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The biggest, most sophisticated Mars rover ever built — a car-size vehicle bristling with cameras, microphones, drills and lasers — blasted off for the red planet Thursday as part of an ambitious, long-range project to bring the first Martian rock samples back to Earth to be analyzed for evidence of ancient life.

NASA’s Perseverance rode a mighty Atlas V rocket into a clear morning sky in the world’s third and final Mars launch of the summer. China and the United Arab Emirates got a head start last week, but all three missions should reach their destination in February after a journey of seven months and 300 million miles.

The plutonium-powered, six-wheeled rover will drill down and collect tiny geological specimens that will be brought home in about 2031 in a sort of interplanetary relay race involving multiple spacecraft and countries. The overall cost: more than $8 billion.

NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, pronounced the launch the start of “humanity’s first round trip to another planet.”

“Oh, I loved it, punching a hole in the sky, right? Getting off the cosmic shore of our Earth, wading out there in the cosmic ocean,” he said. “Every time, it gets me.”

In addition to potentially answering one of the most profound questions of science, religion and philosophy — Is there or has there ever been life beyond Earth? — the mission will yield lessons that could pave the way for the arrival of astronauts as early as the 2030s.

“There’s a reason we call the robot Perseverance. Because going to Mars is hard,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said just before liftoff. “In this case, it’s harder than ever before because we’re doing it in the midst of a pandemic.”

Shortly after liftoff, Perseverance unexpectedly went into safe mode, a sort of protective hibernation, after a temperature reading triggered an alarm. But deputy project manager Matt Wallace later said that the spacecraft appeared to be in good shape, with its temperatures back within proper limits, and that NASA will probably switch it back to its normal cruise state within a day or so.

“Everything is pointing toward a healthy spacecraft ready to go to Mars and do its mission,” he said.

NASA’s deep-space tracking stations also had some difficulty locking onto signals from Perseverance early in the flight but eventually established a solid communication link, Wallace said.

The U.S., the only country to safely put a spacecraft on Mars, is seeking its ninth successful landing on the planet, which has proved to be the Bermuda Triangle of space exploration, with more than half of the world’s missions there burning up, crashing or otherwise ending in failure.

China is sending both a rover an orbiter. The UAE, a newcomer to outer space, has an orbiter en route.

It’s the biggest stampede to Mars in spacefaring history. The opportunity to fly between Earth and Mars comes around only once every 26 months when the planets are on the same side of the sun and about as close as they can get.

The launch went off on time at 7:50 a.m. despite a 4.2-magnitude earthquake 20 minutes before liftoff that shook NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which is overseeing the rover.

Launch controllers at Cape Canaveral wore masks and sat spaced apart because of the coronavirus outbreak, which kept hundreds of scientists and other team members away from Perseverance’s liftoff.

“That was overwhelming. Overall, just wow!” said Alex Mather, the 13-year-old Virginia schoolboy who proposed the name Perseverance in a NASA competition and watched the launch in person with his parents.

About an hour into the flight, controllers applauded, pumped their fists, exchanged air hugs and pantomimed high-fives when the rocket left Earth’s orbit and began hurtling toward Mars.

“We have left the building. We are on our way to Mars,” Perseverance’s chief engineer, Adam Steltzner, said from JPL.

If all goes well, the rover will descend to the Martian surface on Feb. 18, 2021, in what NASA calls seven minutes of terror, during which the craft will go from 12,000 mph to a complete stop. It is carrying 25 cameras and a pair of microphones that will enable Earthlings to vicariously tag along.

Perseverance will aim for Jezero Crater, a treacherous, unexplored expanse of boulders, cliffs, dunes and possibly rocks bearing the chemical signature of microbes from what was a lake more than 3 billion years ago. The rover will store half-ounce rock samples in dozens of super-sterilized titanium tubes.

It also will release a mini helicopter that will attempt the first powered flight on another planet, and test out other technology to prepare the way for future astronauts. That includes equipment for extracting oxygen from Mars’ thin carbon-dioxide atmosphere.

The plan is for NASA and the European Space Agency to launch a dune buggy in 2026 to fetch the rock samples, plus a rocket ship that will put the specimens into orbit around Mars. Then another spacecraft will capture the orbiting samples and bring them home.

Samples taken straight from Mars, not drawn from meteorites discovered on Earth, have long been considered “the Holy Grail of Mars science,” according to NASA’s now-retired Mars czar, Scott Hubbard.

To definitively answer the life-beyond-Earth question, the samples must be analyzed by the best electron microscopes and other instruments, far too big to fit on a spacecraft, he said.

“I’ve wanted to know if there was life elsewhere in the universe since I was 9 years old. That was more than 60 years ago,” Hubbard said from his Northern California cabin. “But just maybe, I’ll live to see the fingerprints of life come back from Mars in one of those rock samples.”


Minden firm had hand in equipping Mars mission launch

MINDEN — A Minden firm celebrated the launch of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission on Thursday, having manufactured some of the components that helped protect a rover expected to begin traversing the Red Planet in several months.

Royal Engineered Composites, long a supplier of equipment for military and civilian aerospace customers, crafted parts in Minden for use in the environmental control system for Thursday’s Atlas V rocket launch by the United Launch Alliance.

“The ducting components we manufactured helped to keep the payload, which in this case was the rover, cool while it sat on the launch platform in Florida,” said Dave Arnold, president of Royal. “They were expended along with the nose cone of the rocket after it exited Earth’s atmosphere.”

Thursday’s launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station sent the Perseverance rover and the attached Ingenuity Mars Helicopter on their way toward Mars, tens of millions of miles away.

The Mars 2020 mission is expected to land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021.

United Launch Alliance is a U.S. spacecraft launch service provider that manufactures and operates a number of rocket vehicles capable of launching spacecraft into orbits around Earth and to other bodies in the solar system.

Components Royal supplied for ULA’s Atlas V rocket also have enabled the company to launch other missions, including a prior Mars mission.

“We have been very proud to support ULA and NASA on a variety of missions,” Arnold said. “We supported the launch of the Curiosity rover back in 2011 and were honored when they came back to us to support this latest mission. It’s not every day that parts we make in Minden, Nebraska, help launch something to another planet.”

Royal Engineered Composites is a fully integrated manufacturer of advanced composite structures for aerospace purposes.

The company was founded in Minden by Harley Cole in 1949 as Royal Plastic Manufacturing, at first fashioning such plastic items as soap dishes. Within a few years, the business had transitioned to making fiberglass-reinforced parts.

Royal began building composite parts for the aviation industry in the late 1950s.


The show will go online

SUTTON — When it became apparent, with the spread of COVID-19, that Allegro Wolf Arts Center would not be able to hold its residential Broadway Academy theater camp in Sutton as it normally does, organizers weren’t sure how campers would respond.

“We know that they love camp, and they love the opportunity to come and be with each other, but we didn’t know how important that particular part of the camp was for our kids,” camp director Taylor Eliason said. “When we informed everyone we were going digital, we slowly started to see some of the kids lose interest. We’ve talked to them and asked them what it was. They’re just tired of doing classes online. They’ve been doing school for so long that they were nervous it was just going to be all day, every day on a computer screen. I can’t blame them because that’s exactly the opposite of what we try to do at camp.”

A year after having 38 campers — a number so high organizers had to turn away applicants — Broadway Academy had just nine campers this year.

The drop in numbers was another sad reality related to the continuing struggle against the novel coronavirus disease.

“To see us drop down to where we are at right now, it’s just like ‘Dang it. We were making such progress,’ ” he said.

The Broadway Academy draws participants from throughout Nebraska, as well as several other states.

While campers didn’t spend the week in Sutton, they still put together a performance.

Campers filmed themselves performing the pieces they worked on with Broadway Academy instructors to perfect. Camp organizers edited that footage to create a performance that will be live streamed 7 p.m. Saturday at broadwayacademy.org/livestream. A donation of $10 is recommended to watch.

The theme of this year’s performance is “Be the Hero of Your Story.”

The remote camp followed a modified schedule of the regular Broadway Academy. Unlike starting the week with auditions, campers submitted audition videos. Instructors still matched actors to songs, which was followed by days of rehearsals. Every camper worked with a vocal coach and instructor. Those rehearsals were conducted on Zoom.

“To go digital was a necessary evil,” Eliason said.

He was proud of the work his students put into their performances.

The change wasn’t without upsides.

With fewer participants, this year’s campers got more of the instructors’ attention.

Going digital also allowed Broadway Academy to educate students on a different aspect of show business.

“We decided to lean into that idea and so we’ve been training them on filming and what that medium looks like,” Eliason said. “We’ve been talking about angles and lighting and even editing — how to communicate different feelings through film.

“In all honesty, it’s been a real nice shift to be able to talk about a different medium the kids might be interested in.”

Allegro Wolf, which was founded in 2012, makes its home in the former Salem United Methodist church at 304 S. Way Ave. in Sutton.

Over time Allegro Wolf and its Broadway Academy have outgrown the current facility.

In response to that growth, Allegro Wolf has started a fundraising drive for an expansion project.

The project, estimated to cost $1 million, includes an expansion off the southwest side of the building and one off the northeast side of the building.

The added space will allow for a dance studio to teach dance classes.

It also will include an event space/rehearsal studio.

“It takes us from being an event space and occasional theater to a full-blown theater where we can produce the musicals you see going to Lincoln but you can’t quite get out there to see,” Eliason said.

To donate go to allegrowolf.org/donate.

Allegro Wolf founders bought their building for one dollar.

“Even a dollar can make all the difference for us,” Eliason said.


Covid-19
South Heartland seeks state help with contact tracing

Seven more South Heartland Health District residents have been confirmed as positive cases of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, since Tuesday, the district health department reported Thursday night.

In related news, South Heartland announced it has begun requesting help from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services in keeping up with its increasing contact tracing workload.

“When our residents and visitors to our area are not following the directed health measures or practicing prevention, there are more cases and more contacts to every case. We have been seeing these increases in the last several weeks,” said Michele Bever, health department executive director. “This impacts our department and strains our local public health workforce — and we are unable to respond quickly. The state public health contact tracing team is helping us address this additional load.”

The seven new cases confirmed since Tuesday include six in Adams County and one in Clay County. Ages of the new patients range from under 20 (one) to the 50s (one). Webster and Nuckolls counties, which also are part of the health district, recorded no new cases for the three-day time period.

Meanwhile, a Clay County woman in her 60s who had been previously confirmed positive for the viral infection had to be hospitalized, South Heartland said.

Since mid-March, a running total of 411 South Heartland residents have been confirmed positive for COVID-19. That number includes 341 in Adams County, 52 in Clay, 11 in Webster and seven in Nuckolls.

Three hundred seventy-four of the patients had recovered from the illness as of Thursday, and the district’s death toll stands at 11. A total of 23 district residents have spent time in a hospital in connection with COVID-19.

In Thursday’s news release, Bever said contact tracing is a vital component of the battle against the spread of COVID-19.

“The goal of contact tracing is to quickly identify anyone who has been exposed — or may have been exposed — in order to stop the spread of the illness,” she said. “Contact investigations help protect the friends, family, work colleagues, teammates, church family, community members and others in close proximity to those with the virus. A quick response to help people isolate, if they are infected, or quarantine, if they have been exposed, means fewer additional people are at risk of becoming infected. This is one way to slow the spread.”

While expressing appreciation for the state’s help in contact tracing, Bever urged district residents to up their game when it comes to taking protective steps to thwart the spread of the virus.

“It would be even more helpful if people would follow the directed health measures, practice physical distancing, wear masks, and keep groups small, so that fewer people are exposed to the virus to begin with and there would be fewer cases and contacts to investigate,” she said. “We can expose people up to two days before we develop symptoms ourselves, and some people never have symptoms but are positive and can shed virus. This is why it is important for everyone to do their part and always practice prevention.”

South Heartland urges anyone with even mild symptoms consistent with COVID-19 to stay home. In addition, the department says, everyone should maintain 6 feet of physical separation from others whenever possible; wear a face covering to avoid spreading germs, especially when physical distancing is difficult; wash hands frequently with soap and water; and clean and disinfect any frequently touched surfaces.

The Two Rivers Public Health Department, which serves seven counties to the west of the Hastings area, reported a total of 37 new positive cases of COVID-19 for Tuesday and Wednesday, including two in Kearney County. The Two Rivers health district now has moved into the “elevated” range on its risk dial for further spread of the virus.

The Central Health District, which encompasses Hall, Hamilton and Merrick counties, on Wednesday reported 23 new cases of the viral infection since its last report on Monday.

South Heartland District case counts and trends can be found on its dashboard of local COVID-19 case statistics posted to the health department website: www.southheartlandhealth.org.

A total of 867 new cases of the disease were confirmed across Nebraska Tuesday through Thursday, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported.

The state agency provides daily updates to Nebraska’s coronavirus COVID-19 cases on its Data Dashboard at http://dhhs.ne.gov/Pages/Coronavirus.