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Local students watch live as rover lands on Mars

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Students found the seats with the clearest view and looked to the silver screen. A rover was about to begin its search for life on Mars.

NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on the red planet Thursday afternoon, nearly seven months after it launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Idaho National Laboratory played a key role in assembling the power source for the rover, and laboratory staffers visited five schools in eastern Idaho to celebrate the start of its mission.

Woodland Hills Elementary School filled its hallways with star-dotted banners and Mars-inspired red rocks. At Temple View Elementary School, the fourth-grade classes capped off a week of space-related projects by building foam rockets and watching the NASA livestream of the mission.

NASA Mars rover Perseverance

Alice Effinger, 9, makes a rocket at Temple View Elementary School as the NASA rover Perseverance prepares to land on Mars on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.

“I like how mysterious space is, how we really don’t know much about it,” Temple View fourth-grader Brooklyn Leishman said.

Perseverance is on a mission to explore the Jezero Crater, which scientists believe used to be a lake billions of years ago. The rover’s primary purpose is to test the soil in the crater and nearby riverbeds for signs of microscopic life. NASA teamed up with the European Space Agency to plan the rover’s $3 billion mission.

The rover’s landing on Mars involved a descent that NASA experts called ”seven minutes of terror.” The landing was done entirely by onboard computers and a rocket-powered sky crane, with no ability for engineers on Earth to step in if something went wrong.

The Associated Press reported that ground controllers at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, jumped 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.

It took a tension-filled 11 1/2 minutes for the signal to reach Earth, the AP reported.

“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking signs of past life,” flight controller Swati Mohan announced to back-slapping, fist-bumping colleagues wearing masks to protect against the coronavirus, the AP reported.

The unknowns of the timing and the success of the landing also made it difficult for teachers, like Judy Bloom at Temple View, to plan the day’s lessons. Her fourth-grade class had spent the past week on space-related projects building up to the Thursday livestream.

“It’s not easy to have a day of plans that are engaging and educational for students without knowing what will happen,” Bloom said.

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

The car-size, plutonium-powered vehicle hit NASA’s smallest and trickiest target yet: a 5-by-4-mile strip on an ancient river delta full of pits, cliffs and fields of rock. 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, the AP reported.

Mars Missions

A full-scale model of the Mars Helicopter Ingenuity is displayed for the media at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

The rover also will be attempting multiple other firsts during its mission. It will use a microphone to beam the sounds of the planet back to Earth for humans to hear. There will also be an attempt at the first powered flight on another planet using a 4-pound helicopter, nicknamed Ingenuity, that will fold out from inside the rover.

Idaho National Laboratory worked with two other nuclear labs to create the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator that powers Perseverance. The lab invited a group of Idaho Falls teachers to see the generator while it was being finished in 2019 and reached out to science-focused schools this month for the landing events.

Jennifer Jackson is the director of INL’s K-12 STEM Education program. As a former teacher in the Idaho Falls School District, Jackson said she knew how excited many kids were to learn about space and see successful missions throughout the solar system.

“It’s the great unknown, the final frontier. There are so many science education standards that we can explore with space travel,” Jackson said.

INL also helped to develop the engines for the Curiosity rover that landed on Mars in 2011 and the New Horizons space probe. The same radioisotope generator will be used for the Dragonfly rover that will launch later in the decade with plans to explore Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

Members of the lab’s education outreach team also visited Sandcreek Middle School in Ammon and two schools in American Falls.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Brennen is the main education reporter for the Post Register. Contact him with news tips at 208-542-6711.