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CNN Live Event/Special

Mission to Mars

Aired May 25, 2008 - 19:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN SPACE CORRESPONDENT: We are reporting live from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Pasadena, California, a place they call Disneyland for space nerds. Well, strap yourself in you are in for a wild ride in about 53 minutes from now.
We will find out if NASA has beaten the odds and landed a spacecraft north of the Arctic Circle near the North Pole of Mars and sending back we hope some pictures like we have never seen before of the Red Planet. It is a journey of 422 million miles, over ten months which is now coming to an end, and we do not know how it is just going to an end.

Take a look at some live pictures right now in the Mission Control Room here at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Pictures being taken. A lot of people those blue shirts part of the team they look like they are not doing much.

Well, the case -- that is in fact the case because at this point of the game, after this ten-month mission, after the years of planning that have all gone into it, there is little they can do but watch as the spacecraft enters into the atmosphere of Mars, goes from 12,600 miles an hour, 20,000 kilometers per hour to zero in all of 7 minutes.

Imagine how difficult all that is and how many things have to go right and how many things have to happen automatically. Let us look at live pictures. Just briefly I want to introduce you to a concept; we have some live animation pictures of the spacecraft as it comes in. It will give us an idea where the spacecraft is.

Obviously we cannot see it for real, but that computer simulation will give you an idea. As you can see in the foreground there the solar rays below it is the heat shield. We will watch as the whole series of events occurs. 26 pyrotechnic devices have to fire, in order for this to get from where it is to the ground, safely 12 rockets have to fire.

Now, this wild ride that we are about to see as we say is called "Seven Minutes from Terror."

Over the years Mars missions have had a very difficult track record. Should they make it to the baseball hall of fame, but still, not even half of Mars missions ultimately succeed. And the reason is, well, who knows. This planet is difficult to get to, but it is sure worth the effort. Scientists try time and again despite the long odds.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE) The fourth rock from the sun is the solar system's Bermuda triangle. So when the Phoenix Mars Lander reaches the red planet, scientist will turning blue, hoping their galactic gambit pays off.

PETER SMITH, LEAD SCIENTIST: And we are waiting for the final flip-over of the last card. And you know I am holding a good hand, I got a couple of aces.

O'BRIEN: Lead scientist Peter Smith knows what it is like to lose all his chips. A decade ago he developed the camera for the Mars Polar Lander. The spacecraft crashed back in 1999 as it approached the Martian surface. No one is certain why.

SMITH: We found probably a dozen little bugs that could definitely have been the end of Polar Lander.

O'BRIEN: After the Polar Lander loss, NASA canceled most of the Mars program including a carbon copy of the doomed Polar Lander, and that is the very spacecraft knocking on Mars' door now. But engineers say they have tested and retested Phoenix extensively.

ED WEILER, NASA ASSOC. ADMIN.: We fixed everything we knew about but that we could think of. And of course the one question left is the unknown unknowns.

O'BRIEN: NASA built Mars Polar Lander on a shoestring, part of a philosophy called faster, better, cheaper championed by then Administrator Dan Golden. A Mars orbiter built with the same budget constraints made it's own crater on the Red Planet a little over two months before Polar Lander. In that case, two teams of controllers confused Metric and English measurements leading to a fatal navigation error.

WEILER: That is a classic example of when cutting corners being penny-wise and pound-foolish can really get you. So there is nothing wrong with faster, better, cheaper as long as you always remember these three words not two.

O'BRIEN: NASA is hoping the hard lessons of faster, better, cheaper have given Phoenix a better than average chance. But the average is not good. Over the years less than half of all Mars missions have succeeded. NASA's opportunity and spirit rovers where and remain big winners. But they arrived on Mars inside giant bouncing beach balls. Landing a large craft like Phoenix with legs and rockets is much dicier.

WEILER: There is so many things happening in a short period of time that is definitely the seven minutes of terror.

O'BRIEN: Assuming it is a lucky seven for the team, Phoenix will set up shop near the Martian North Pole. Dig on the tundra and if the luck holds, possibly give scientists evidence of life, past or even present. Now that is what you would call pay dirt.

(END VIDEO TAPE) O'BRIEN: The pay dirt that they are going after, if all goes well, will very likely contain bits of water ice. If that is the case, it is the first time a spacecraft will have touched water ice on Mars, much less analyzed it.

Now, water is a big deal because liquid water is something that we consider absolutely mandatory for life to exist here on this planet. So the hunt for water on Mars, what happened to it, where it might be right now is part of a very fundamental question we have all asked ourselves at one time or another, are we alone in the universe. If you want to find an answer to that question Mars is a pretty good place to go.


O'BRIEN: Mars is a place of contradictions, alien yet familiar; so close it is seems reachable yet far enough to protect its secrets. For as long as we have looked at the night sky we have wondered about that reddish star, what mysteries might it hold and whether one day we might pay a visit.

Steve Squyres is the top scientist for NASA's Mars rover expeditions which rolled out the entrapment robots spirit and opportunity on the Martian surface in January 2004.

STEVE SQUYRES, MARS ROVER SCIENTIST: There we go, keep going, keep going. These two spots from North from the South are the once that we have been looking at as of this --

O'BRIEN: The Red Planet for him is a means to an end; a great place to answer some questions that have burned inside him all his life.

SQUYRES: How common is life throughout the universe. And how does life first to rise? Do you remember the first time you asked that question of yourself?

I cannot remember a time when I did not. From day one? Yeah, I mean -- and I think that just speaks to how normal and natural it is for anybody. You could ask that question of anybody, and I think that you get almost the same answer. Six-year-old, go out and look at the sky at night, look at the stars. You know what is out there? Did not you wonder?

O'BRIEN: Sure.

SQUYRES: We all have.

O'BRIEN: Mars may be just the place to find the Holy Grail.

SQUYRES: You can go to just another planet in this solar system and find it even just in this one solar system, life has independently arisen twice. Then it requires no great leap of faith or anything else to believe that it may be in fact be common when you consider the multitude of worlds that there are out there.


O'BRIEN: All right, joining us now live right from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Steve Squyres, who is in charge of those Mars rovers. Amazingly, we shot that story a little while ago. We never would have predicted that four years later they are still going; still bringing back data and still very much active on the Red Planet. You hopefully will be going to have some company there coming up tonight.

First of all, I want to just go to the control room once again. Now you see the pictures there. Everyone looks so calm, cool, and collected, and they are not, right? I mean what is going on to their brain?

SQUYRES: Well, you know it has amused me that they call this the control room. Because they have got a lot of things in there tonight, but control is not one of them.

That vehicle is on its own. It takes 16 minutes for the radio signal traveling at the speed of light to get from Mars to Earth. It's going to take seven minutes to land that thing.

O'BRIEN: So they cannot control it at all.

SQUYRES: They are spectators just like we are.

O'BRIEN: All right, so by the time they find out whether this land or not, it will all have happened?

SQUYRES: That is right.

O'BRIEN: Sixteen minutes prior?

SQUYRES: That is right and in fact if you think about it when we first on Earth start to see the spacecraft hitting the upper fringes of the Martian atmosphere, at that point in time, 200 million miles away on Mars, the thing has been sitting on the surface for nine minutes.

O'BRIEN: Wow. All right let us go to the animation and walk people through exactly what has to happen. Your colleague Barry Goldstein is one of the greats here at the Jet Propulsion Lab helped you get your rovers on the surface, is involved in this mission as well.

And let us start from this point right here. They call these seven minutes of terror.


O'BRIEN: They loose the cruise stage there which is the solar array and it is on its own and it is in -- it looks like an Apollo capsule there. What is going on right now?

SQUYRES: Well, what is happening is this thing is going to hit the top of the Martian atmosphere about 80 miles above the Martian surface and it is going more than 20 times the speed of sound; more than 20,000 miles an hour.

And you have to take all of that velocity and you got to get rid of it. You got to bleed off all that kinetic energy. So what it does is it uses the friction with the atmosphere and then there is a special coating on the heat shield to prevent this from cooking the spacecraft inside. That heat shield gets up to like 2600 degrees Fahrenheit. It gets very, very hot.

O'BRIEN: So, that heat shield has got to work well.

SQUYRES: This shield is one of many things that has to got to work well. Yes.

O'BRIEN: Most of the steam, most of the energy just gets dissipated with heat and friction in the wispy atmosphere of Mars, but there -- that is not enough to slow you down obviously. What is next in the process?

SQUYRES: Well, once you get down to a leisurely Mach 1.5, so this still supersonic, you throw out a supersonic parachute. There goes the parachute, it is a -- it is a very, very difficult thing to design and build a supersonic parachute.

O'BRIEN: You had a lot of problems on your mission on this.

SQUYRES: We had problems with our parachutes. It is a tough thing to do and you know you do not drift down slowly on a parachute on Mars. You are still screaming down towards the surface at hundreds of miles an hour.

O'BRIEN: So you still have to do some more things to slow down.

SQUYRES: Oh, yes.

O'BRIEN: You had those giant inflatable airbags which allowed you to bounce, bounce, bounce; this vehicle weighing 900 pounds too big for all of that. And so as a result it has 12 rocket thrusters. Explain how this landing will go off, in theory, without a hitch.

SQUYRES: Well, what happens is the heat shield drops away. And then, what you do is you sense the surface with the radar. You figure out how far you are above the surface then you start firing those rocket motors. And the rocket motors don't throttle. They pulse, turn on and off. Yeah, you can see him turning on and off.

O'BRIEN: It looks like a shower massage or something that.

SQUYRES: Exactly and what happens is if you want to thrust a lot, they are on a lot and off a little. If you want to thrust less, you reverse that. And it just then it gets -- it descends at a steady rate at about 5 miles an hour. And then the way you tell you have landed is that when you touched the surface, the legs simply compress because of the weight of the vehicle and when the legs compress the vehicle says okay, we are on Mars and turn the motors off.

O'BRIEN: And it makes it all sounds so simple, but literally as Barry Goldstein said, really if you started counting it off there are a million things that could go wrong. But there are some key things that he is going to be worry about, the firing of 26 pyrotechnic devices, that all these things separate and then of course you want those 12 rockets to pulse and fire as they're supposed to.

SQUYRES: Right yes, there are a lot of mechanical things that have to happen. The heat shield has to drop away. If it does not, you are done. The legs have to deploy, if they do not you are done. The rocket motors have to turn on when you tell him to turn on.

All this things have to happen and they have to happen in the right sequence. And every one of those is a mission critical event.

O'BRIEN: All right, just quickly let's look at the landing site here. This is an ellipse as they call it. Probability of landing is sort of right in the middle of that ellipse. The green area there means fewer rocks. Which is -- you want to avoid rocks in this case, because you are landing on legs and you do not want to be Kathy Wampus (ph), essentially, right?

What are the odds that it is going to hit right in the middle in the bull's eye pretty good.

SQUYRES: The odds of hitting in bull's eye are pretty slim but the odds of it coming down somewhere in that ellipse is 99 percent.

O'BRIEN: 99 percent, all right that is good enough for us. We are going to take a break. It is now a little less than 40 minutes to the arrival of Mars Phoenix -- the Mars Phoenix Lander. It will arrive on Mars we hope safe and sound.

We are going to take a little break, and when we come back we are going tell you a little more about the mission and we are going to sort of kick the tires, if you will, on this $420 million spacecraft. That is right, there are no tires. Nevertheless, we will show you all about that.

And by the way if you want to find out more about what we know about Mars and see a spectacular photo gallery that Steve Squyres helped us put together, go to and check out our blog. We will be back with more of our quest to arrive on the Mars Planet in the moment, stay with us.


O'BRIEN: Live pictures from Pasadena, California. There is the team. They do not look like they are sweating it, but they are as we get ready for the Mars Lander, that Phoenix Lander to make its way to the surface of the Red Planet. The first time that a spacecraft have attempted to land above the Arctic Circle on Mars giving us an unusual look at the planet. We are used to seeing rocks which is the equatorial regions in this case it is going to look a lot like tundra.

The Phoenix Lander is aptly named because it rose from the ashes of a big failure back in 1999. The Mars Polar Lander was to arrive and was to conduct its mission in December of 1999, but as it turns out, a series of problems with that spacecraft, one of which led to the conclusion that the rocket motor would have shut off prematurely and it would have plummeted to the ground. But there were several problems with that Mars Polar Lander.

Since that time they have gone back to the drawing board. They have inspected this spacecraft over and over again, engineered and reengineered it and tested and retested.

And one of the places where they have done that or where they have worked out this entire mission is in Tucson at the University of Arizona, where the science mission is conducted for all of this. There is a full-scale mock-up of that spacecraft there and just the other day I had an opportunity to tour it and take a look.


O'BRIEN: So this is the spacecraft and this is pretty close to the real thing. How close?

ROLFE BODE, PIT TEST ENGINEER: Well, from the deck up, for the most part, this is an exact copy of all the science instruments that are flying on the Phoenix Mars Lander. We cannot send somebody to Mars yet but what we have here is all the -- you think of your senses, the robot arm was designed at the Jet Propulsion Labs, and a it has a scoop which is going to dig the dirt right from Mars, and we have a rasp (ph).

O'BRIEN: This rasp is on the back and that is because it is such a hard surface, right?

BODE: Once we hit frozen soil, it is going to be as hard as concrete.

O'BRIEN: What is this and happens there?

BODE: That is teega (ph) it is kind of like a nose, when you are cooking in the kitchen, and you are making cookies you smell that chocolate chip cookie smell. And that is what we are going to do with this. This is an evolved gas analyzer and if there were organics we hope to be able to detect them.

O'BRIEN: So this could be a crucial instrument toward that goal of finding out about life on Mars.

BODE: That is correct.

O'BRIEN: And now what is this over here. This is another place where you can deposit material too. What does that do?

BODE: That is Meca (ph). It actually takes the sample and it will mix water in with it and then look at the products of the chemistry that happens there. It also has an optical microscope. This is where we can take a very, very close look at the soil samples.

O'BRIEN: What is this camera going to do? BODE: Well, this is a stereo camera. That is very important because being stereo it works like the human being again where if you -- with two eyes you can get depth perception. So this thing will take -- this camera will take images, and by the stereo properties, you will be able to actually map out the surface of Mars and that will help and determine where to set the arm down and start digging.

O'BRIEN: And over here finally we have a DVD.

BODE: Yes, we do.

O'BRIEN: Tell me about that.

BODE: Well, what I know about that is that we invited the world to join us in this exploration. And many, many people signed up and their names will be going to be on that disc and will fly to Mars and be on the surface of Mars.

O'BRIEN: Is your name on there?

BODE: It sure is, along with everybody I know.


O'BRIEN: Back now live with Steve Squyres, the principal investigator on the Mars rover expeditions, that is a spirit and opportunity as you know them.

Let us walk through this a little bit more. And this -- we have got a model here of the Mars Phoenix Lander. This shuttle it is interesting. When you consider the turf where they are, it is just as hard as the concrete, if not harder, than the concrete we are on right now, or so we think. We do not know for sure. You cannot shovel on that; that is just going to scrape isn't it?

SQUYRES: That is right.

O'BRIEN: So what they did was and the folks at Honeybee (ph) robotics in Manhattan who you used to develop on that rod which drilled in to the rocks there came up with a novel shovel. And I want you to point that out some of the features on that

SQUYRES: There is this scoop. And fundamentally what the arm is it's a giant backhoe. It' a backhoe that is going to scoop soil and it will scoop soil as long as the soil is loose. But once you hit ice, like you said, it's as hard as concrete, so once you hit that you need some different tools.

So there is actually a little -- sticking out at the back end here, there is this little rasp, and it's essentially a drill and what you do is you rotate it. What it will do is it will scrape away and scrape away little bits of soil and ice and then those can be picked up by the scoop and rotated. This shows it nicely.

O'BRIEN: This is a cross-section of the whole thing. SQUYRES: Right and then the stuff comes in here and then you rotate it and rotate it until it falls around through the passageway. It's called a labyrinth -- it's basically a maze that this stuff negotiates and then it comes at the end of the scoop.

And what it does is it provides you a way to deal with the really hard ice that you may encounter at these very low temperatures on Mars.

All right. So what will happen is, once that all that material has been scooped and put in the shovel, it will come out to two key scientific instruments here. One is essentially is an oven. This is going to heat it up.

O'BRIEN: What do you do when you heat it up. What does that tell you?

SQUYRES: A couple of things happen. One thing that happens when you heat it up, as you raise the temperature, what you do is you keep track of how much power, how much thermal energy you have to put in to get the temperature to rise. That will tell you something about things in there that might change their physical fate like ice melting.

When ice melts it takes a certain amount of energy to make that happen. You can sense that and it tells you ice is present. The other thing that happens is when you heat that stuff, gases can be given off, water vapor can be given off, if there are organic materials, they can be vaporized and they can come off as well.

And then that gas goes into this box here which is called a mass spectrometer and that's an instrument that will tell us what's in the gas.

O'BRIEN: And briefly there is also a device that you mix it with water. They brought water along with them as a solvent to figure out what's inside.

SQUYRES: Yes they got four little beakers about the size of teacups. And there is a water solution that is put into that and then you mix the soil with it and you can measure the chemistry of the soil.

O'BRIEN: All right. Of course, we're going to see those pictures. We hope to see some before too long tonight as the mission progresses.

Now, about 30 minutes to landing. Let's go back briefly to to mission control room there as you see the team once again getting ready to just watch because everything has been buttoned up. They decided not to do a last-minute course correction. The spacecraft will automatically do what it's supposed to do or not.

Coming up, we're going to talk to the administrator of NASA. We'll ask him how this fits into the bigger picture of sending people to Mars someday. Stay with us.


O'BRIEN: This mission is all about the search for life outside our planet. Could it exist or did it exist once on Mars? And if that is the case, where does that lead us scientifically and philosophically.

Take a look at the control room here as we get ready for the landing of the Mars Phoenix Lander, now about 28 minutes away from the earth receive time when we'll know one way or another if the spacecraft has made it safely down to the surface of Mars, the first soft landing on Mars hoped for 27 minutes from now, since 1976.

Where does this whole mission fit into the big scheme of things though? NASA is on a new mission. The shuttle program is in its closing days. NASA is focused on returning to the moon and one day sending people, they hope to Mars.

A little while ago, I sat down with the NASA administrator, Mike Griffin, and asked him about all that.


O'BRIEN: Thanks very much for being with us.

Let's talk about how hard this is. Let's remind people what's going on here. This is a spacecraft that is going to try to go through a whole series of events to go from 12,600-miles-an-hour, 20,000-kilometers-an-hour to zero in seven minutes. The last time the U.S. did this and successfully did it was in 1976 with the Viking Landers. Try to give people a sense of how hard this is.

MIKE GRIFFIN, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: If I were going to use a 1 through 10 scale, I would make this a 9 on the hardness level. But I'm also reminded of what President Kennedy said in 1962 at Rice (ph) University talking about the space program when he said we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. This is a prime example of that.

O'BRIEN: You mentioned John F. Kennedy, it was 47 years ago on this day, the famous speech to Congress where he laid the groundwork for Apollo. And really when you think about how audacious that was just in the wake of Alan Shepard's sub-orbital flight to say let's go to the moon and do it before the end of the decade.

There's a new impetus out there from President Bush, January of 2004 he said let's go back to the moon and maybe go on to Mars some day, but there's not a deadline, there's not a time nor is there the money. What does that tell you?

GRIFFIN: Well, what it tells me is that we're doing things this time in a little bit more orderly and disciplined fashion. There is a deadline. We were told to do it before 2020 in the end of the next decade. What I have this time that the Apollo veterans didn't have is a nice stable budget year over year that I can deal with and plan in a much more orderly fashion than we had first time around. At this point I think we'd rather have that than to have an artificial deadline.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's talk though about how this fits into the big picture. We talked a lot about the hunt for life on Mars, the hunt for water, which might lead in that direction. How is this important, if at all, in a decision eventually to send people to the surface of Mars?

GRIFFIN: Well, it's tremendously important because when you send people to Mars you're going to want to send them to an interesting place. Interesting has many definitions, but one component of it will surely be scientific interest and there will be higher point of scientific interest than where we can find water on Mars, and in terms of human habitability, the same will be true. So this is a fascinating precursor mission.

O'BRIEN: Now, I know you are not the superstitious type, but are there any traditions associated with this you are going to embrace?

GRIFFIN: Well, other people may have such things, but I won't.

O'BRIEN: What's going to be going through your mind as you watch -- just watching the data?

GRIFFIN: I'm going to be watching the data there. There are certain radio indications, as we listen to the radio signal coming in. We can tell if things are -- maybe not if things are happening as they should, but we will be able to tell if things are the not happening as they should, and I'll be listening for all that.

O'BRIEN: Mike Griffin thanks very much.

GRIFFIN: My pleasure, Miles.


O'BRIEN: Coming up in the program: Since the space age began, there have been a total of 36 missions to Mars, some of them orbiters and some of them landers; 23 of them failed. It's a good thing that 13 were successes because collectively they have left us with a treasure-trove of amazing images of a distant place.

In' just a moment we'll going to show you and share with you some of Steve Squyres' favorite pictures. And you can see also see them on our Web site, in our blog.

Stay with us for more of the mission to Mars.


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN SPACE CORRESPONDENT: Welcome back to our program "Mission to Mars." The Mars Phoenix Lander streaking its way towards its moment of destiny. How was that for a cliche. But that's what it really is all about here. It will arrive on Mars, the question is will it be in one piece? We're not certain just yet and the animation right now that shows you the configuration of the spacecraft. That will get more interesting a little bit later as things start happening and things start off the spacecraft on purpose and parachutes start opening. Take a look at the control room. Everybody has a nice blue shirt on. I didn't get one of the blue shirts. I will have to work on that a little bit later. There is really not much they can do. They're going to see it happen. It's all spring loaded, it's all automatic, and they hope it all works according to design.

Now, about 20 minutes to the landing. In the meantime, up to that seven minutes of terror beforehand - we'll make sure we're watching this very closely at that time. In the meantime we though we have Steve Steve Squyres here, a guy who had tremendous success with the Mars Rover, spearheaded an opportunity, still out there, sending back images, we thought we would have him bring us some of the favorite images of Mars. And we're going to go through it relatively quickly, but it will kind of give you sort of a space age history of the planet. And really the story that comes to and over and over again is water. This is an image from Mariner. Now, the Mariner missions were very significant historic missions in late mid '60s, into the early '70s. Tell me what we're seeing here and why this is significant.

SQUYRES: The Mariner 9 1971. Now, you've heard everybody talk about the Rovers on Mars, and we discovered evidence for water et cetera. Evidence for water on Mars was found by Mariner 9 in the early 70s and this is some of the evident right here. What you see here -

O'BRIEN: That's got to be an ancient river, right.

SQUYRES: And you can see tributaries branching. It's exactly the kind of thing you get from water across the surface. That provided the first really good evidence for water.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's forward to the Viking missions, tremendously successful missions. And this is the Olympus mounds and this is a volcano that would just dwarf any volcano in our planet.

SQUYRES: It's three times the height of Mt. Everest and that volcano that you see there is about as big across as the state of Arizona.

O'BRIEN: So, if we did that. Arizona will be covered up by that -

SQUYRES: That is a big pile of rock.

O'BRIEN: No, it also highs. There's also incredible lows there. Let's look at the Valles Marineris. This is - this makes our Grand Canyon look kind of puny. This is also images from Viking.

SQUYRES: Yes. O'BRIEN: And what do we know about it?

SQUYRES: Well, this is the biggest canyon system in the solar system. If you put this thing on earth. It will stretch from New York to Los Angeles. It's several times deeper than the Grand Canyon on earth. It's an enormous beach, it was probably caused when tectonic forces within the planet pulled across to part.

O'BRIEN: One more, let's look now at this 3-D image, which takes you down. By the way, this right here, which is a 3-D comes from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and this is not exaggeration. Those are actual peaks inside.

SQUYRES: If you were hovering over the surface of Mars in a helicopter, down in the Valles Marineris at this location, that's what you would see.

O'BRIEN: Wow, bring your carabineers, your crampons and all that if you're going to do some hiking there. Steve Squyres, we're going to take a break. We're going to come back and finish up this photo album in just a moment. We're going to continue following this mission. We're now 18 minutes away from earth receive time knowing one way or another if the Mars Phoenix Lander has had its soft landing on the planet Mars as our "Mission to Mars" continues. Stay with us.


JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Good evening, everyone. I'm CNN meteorologist, Jacqui Jeras in the severe weather center tracking tornadoes across the upper Midwest. We've had numerous reports of touchdowns and damage in both Iowa and Minnesota. Look at how huge the threat area is tonight, from Texas all the way up to Minnesota. PDS watches as we call them, highlighted there which means it's a particularly dangerous situation. Let's go ahead and zoom in on northeastern Iowa where storm trackers continue to track a dangerous rotating storm. We have warnings in effect for Buchanan and also Butler counties.

This storm has a history of producing tornadoes, and there has been a lot of damage around the Waterloo area, also in the Fair banks and Duckerton areas, we're getting reports of damage. There you can see some pictures of hail from Kera Levin (ph) out of the twin cities. We had hail the size of baseball is being reported in the Anoka one area. A tornado also touched down around Cool Rapids, Minnesota, and we also have reports of damage of about five city blocks in Hugo which is just northeast of St. Paul, Minnesota. We will have a wrap of tonight's storms coming up at 10:00 Eastern, and we will break in as necessary if tornadoes are reported on the ground. In the meantime, we'll go back to Miles O'Brien and this "Mission to Mars." Miles.

O'BRIEN: Jacqui, thank you very much. We're back at the jet propulsion laboratory. Welcome to all our viewers all around the world. I'm Miles O'Brien, CNN space correspondent. We just got confirmation that things appear to be going to plan in space. The cruise stage of the spacecraft, the portion of the spacecraft that is solar powered and has an antenna on it which allows direct contact back to earth has separated as it was supposed to. I should also point out to you that whatever has happened on Mars has actually already happened. We're just waiting for the signal to come back. It takes 16 minutes. It's a little like Tivo, only you can't fast forward. You can only wait for the signal to come back.

Let's get back to our photo album with Steve Squyres as we wait for things to heat up in that control room. And Steve, we were talking about some of the great Mars images from spacecraft over the time. And we're going to start with one here, the Victoria crater which is a place near and dear to your heart. I know. This is from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

SQUYRES: This is from MRL. That's correct. Yes.

O'BRIEN: Tell me about this. And this crater is just stunning. Look at these dunes there in the middle. That's fascinating.

SQUYRES: That's a big dune field in the middle. This is the crater that is being explored by the Rover Opportunity right now. We're going to avoid those dunes.

O'BRIEN: That's a good thing. You know don't want to be there.

SQUYRES: Put a big x through those because that's a big Rover death traps.

O'BRIEN: No dunes.

SQUYRES: Stay out of the dunes. But yes, this is the crater that Opportunity is exploring right now. We've been there for about a year and a half. We've actually been at this crater quite a while. A spectacular window into the subsurface of Mars. It's about half a mile across. And OK. Here's the view on the surface.

O'BRIEN: I was about to show you where the spacecraft was. But it's on the edge. Now, you see the surface and this is what you love to see, this outcrop. You don't want to drive there, but that's stuff that geologists love.

SQUYRES: We're hoping to drive up to the base of that clip pretty soon.

O'BRIEN: Oh, wow. Let's in - who knows what you will find there. But one of the - in the early days of the mission, this is like a couple of weeks into the mission. These images came back from one of the microscopic cameras on Opportunity. This was a big deal. Explain why.

SQUYRES: Well, these are the things that have gotten nicknamed blueberries. These are what geologists call (conpricians) and they form in rock when you have liquid rock and then a mineral precipitates out of the hard making little hard nodule in the rock. And that's what these are and they show that water once saturated the ground here. O'BRIEN: All right. We have one other image. We seldom see this one. It's actually hard to come by but we worked very hard on it. It actually turns out. We dug it out of our archives. We thought we would just throw Marvin in there for you.

All right. We are going to continue following this very closely. We're coming up on the moment of truth, the so-called seven minutes of terror. Take a look inside the control room. Far left of your screen, Charles Elachi. That's the man in charge of the jet propulsion laboratory. Barry Goldstein beside him who is instrumental in this mission. The principal investigator behind him Peter Smith. These are guys that have a lot on the line here. Ten minutes to go. We're going to take a break. And when we come back, you're going to ride through the seven minutes of terror with us. Stay with us as "Mission to Mars" continues.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back "Mission to Mars." You know, Mars is 170 million miles away from where we are right now. And I guess, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that it would take a little time for data to get back from there. 16 minutes to be exact. So, whatever has happened on Mars has happened. We are at the moment now where it gets very serious for the team. Seven minutes of terror they call it. This spacecraft so far has done exactly as it was supposed to do as it enters the atmosphere of Mars. There's the control room to your left. There's a live animation giving a sense of what's going on with the spacecraft at the moment. What you are not seeing is that things are getting very hot right now. Steve Squyres, take us through from this process of going from 12,700 kilometers an hour to zero in seven minutes. That's a lot of heat. The tradeoff is heat.

SQUYRES: They just hit the top of the Martian atmosphere about 30 to 45 seconds ago. They are expected to reach the peak heating which will be about 2600 degrees on the heat shield, within the next minute or so. Now, of course, that's as we see it here on earth. It happened on Mars 16 minutes ago. Basically, what you're doing is taking the velocity of the vehicle, its kinetic energy and you're converting it heat and you're dumping that heat to space and that the way the vehicle slows down.

O'BRIEN: In this case, what are the big worries. For one thing, it has gone to battery power. The batteries are operating. That's a good thing. Communication is key here. In theory, the team should be able to see the space craft pretty much go all the way down with a few hiccups along the way.

SQUYRES: There might be a blackout during the period of peak heating when you develop plasma, a sheath of plasma around the vehicle. It's hard to punch a radio signal through that because the atmosphere gets so hot. Once that cools off, they should see the signal again and then once the parachute deploys all of a sudden they'll start seeing data coming down at 32,000 bits per second, and they should have a lot of information there all the way down to the ground. It will happen in the next couple of minutes. O'BRIEN: When you say 32,000 bits per second, they're going to know everything about the spacecraft. And one of the things going back to December of 1999, in the loss of the Mars Polar Lander, was they were completely in the dark as Polar Lander went down. They didn't have the orbiting assets. They didn't have the ability of watching it. And as a result, the failure was really a mystery. wasn't? This is important to be nothing else, even if it doesn't succeed, to know what happened, right?

SQUYRES: Yes. They should have lots of information, starting very soon about what's going on with their vehicle and succeed or fail, they will know what happened.

O'BRIEN: All right. As a principal investigator at this point, I mean, you're not even driving the spacecraft. I mean, no one is driving the spacecraft, but you're the science guy. You're all about the payload, not the spacecraft getting it there. You really are kind of powerless at this point, aren't you?

SQUYRES: Everybody is kind of powerless at this point. It's in the hands of Mars at this point.

RICHARD CORNFIELD, MISSION COMMENTATOR: We do have a signal by Odyssey. Standing by for reacquisition.

O'BRIEN: All right. You heard that call. That comes from Richard Cornfield who is one of the mission commentators, and he's saying that so far everything is good. And as a matter of fact, the signal has gotten to Mars Odyssey which is in orbit. The significance of that --

SQUYRES: That means that the vehicle - the Phoenix vehicle as it's descending through the Martian atmosphere is successfully communicating with an orbiter overhead. That's really good news. That means the vehicle is still alive and doing well.

O'BRIEN: All right. At what point in this - descent pretty soon for now I think, we're going to have a parachute deployment. What time does that happen?

SQUYRES: Very soon. Like, within the next ten seconds. Stand by.

CORNFIELD: In ten seconds.

O'BRIEN: This will be a moment that everybody will be on the edge of their seats here in the control room here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There you see that live animation that depicts what's going on with the spacecraft right now. It looks like an Apollo capsule.

CORNFIELD: Odyssey station detected. Odyssey locked up on Phoenix carrier. Standing by. Deployment. And Phoenix reach stage 32K.

At this point in time, Phoenix would normally deploy the parachute. Standing by for acquisition.

O'BRIEN: Wow, we don't know for sure if that parachute is deployed -that supersonic parachute has deployed. The spacecraft should be going about 1.5 times the speed of sound on Mars. That is a high speed parachute. We're waiting to here if it's going to deploy. This is a key moment right now. It looks like the team is indicating they got it. They got it!

CORNFIELD: Phoenix reach stage 2K detected. We have data lockup. Parachute detected. Heat shield detected. 90 meters per second.

SQUYRES: The next thing is the radar is going to pick up the surface.

O'BRIEN: All right, the radar activity - and of course, the only way to know where the surface is to bounce your own radar beams off of it. It's important that this work just according to plan and then of course the next key thing after that will be the separation from that parachute with the shell on top of it, right. It drops - literally stops dropping like a stone.

SQUYRES: Yes, 37 seconds before touchdown they're going to cut that thing free and it starts flying on its own.

O'BRIEN: And that will be a dicey moment because the rockets don't stop firing -

SQUYRES: That's right.

O'BRIEN: until --

SQUYRES: Those rocket motors are going to either fire or they're not. And we're going to find out in one minute and 31 seconds.

O'BRIEN: All right. It's very key that that radar altimeter turns on.

SQUYRES: The radar is on.

CORNFIELD: ... reached the mode.

O'BRIEN: About how fast is it going now? Slowing down pretty quickly.

SQUYRES: It's getting down to couple hundred miles an hour or something like that.

O'BRIEN: But still dropping very quickly. Because you got to remember, the Martian atmosphere is much, much thinner than our own.

SQUYRES: You do not drift down lazily on a parachute.

O'BRIEN: You are coming down.

SQUYRES: You are screaming down towards the surface. CORNFIELD: Deployment check detected. 16 meters per second. Standing by for audio conversion.

O'BRIEN: I have not heard a confirmation that radar altimeter is working. We don't know yet. Do we?

SQUYRES: They're still working on that one. Yes.

O'BRIEN: There's Peter Smith there, principal investigator Charles Elachi in the foreground there, head of JPL. I think you wrote in your book that all of the managers come in because they can, right? That's why they are there. But this is their baby as well, isn't.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... telemetry.

O'BRIEN: Radar reliable. There you go. That's a big one right there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Radar reliable.

SQUYRES: 6,000 feet above the surface now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ...Conversions detected. 1800 meters. 1700 meters.

O'BRIEN: So far everything has gone according to plan. You see Barry Goldstein trying to tell people to be quiet there because they are getting excited.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Separation. 1,000 meters.

O'BRIEN: Oh, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Separation detected. Detectors. Gravity detected. 600 meters. 500 meters. 400 meters. 250 meters. 150 meters. 100 meters. 80 meters. 50 meters. Detected at 40 meters. 30 meters. 27 meters. 20 meters. 15 meters. Standing by for touchdown. Touchdown signal detected.

O'BRIEN: It's down. They're down. Welcome back to Mars!


O'BRIEN: The Jet Propulsion Lab, NASA, the Mars Phoenix Lander with a soft touchdown north of the arctic circle, the north polar region of the red planet, the first soft touchdown on legs on the spacecraft on Mars in more than 30 years, since 1976 this hasn't happened. I asked Mike Griffin, the NASA administration a while ago how hard this was on a scale of 1 to 10. He said it's easily a 9. They made it look easily.

SQUYRES: That sounds like a 10 to me. I don't know about you.

O'BRIEN: Wow. That all went off without a hitch. Now, we're just going to -- the whole process now of communication and seeing some images very soon and we're going to see Mars like we haven't seen it before assuming everything is working. There are still some steps to go. We will be back with more in just a moment. Stay with us.


O'BRIEN: "Mission to Mars." The Mars Phoenix Lander is on the ground. There's a lot of things that have to happen before we see pictures. They will come back a little before 10:00 p.m. Eastern time. First of all, take a look at the control room. A lot of congratulations going on in there. Steve Squyres, what has to happen, what does Phoenix have to do to get ready to do science ready? So, a lot of things have to happen now, right.

SQUYRES: At this point, it's all about Lander safety. The first thing that you want to do is make sure that the thing is safe on the surface, you release the helium, the pressurized propulsion system. You don't have to worry about that anymore. And then the big event is getting these solar rays -

O'BRIEN: These solar rays right here. These two disks that look kind of fan out, literally. Those things obviously have to work if this mission is going to succeed.

SQUYRES: Right, but you don't do it right away because those rocket motors pick up a lot of dust and you got to literally wait for the dust to settle. So they're going to wait about 15 minutes and then the solar rays are going to come down.

O'BRIEN: The solar rays deployed. The camera will popped up. The first pictures it will take are of the solar rays, and then legs and then eventually, we'll see a horizon. I want to take you back four years ago to your scene when Spirit landed. And those pictures came up. This is what we we're going to see in just a little while if all goes well. When those first pictures come up, can you put it into words what that's like? All the years that you spent trying to get to Mars and you see those pictures.

SQUYRES: It's an incredible feeling because on the one hand, you're looking at the hardware, you know, this was hardware that you are standing next to in Pasadena months before and now here it is in the surface of Mars but then you see Mars in the background. And it's just an incomparable feeling.

O'BRIEN: And that hopefully with good luck and obviously the hardest part of it is over. With good luck, the team will have just that experience in awhile. We invite you to check out our Web site, We have a lot of information about Mars and a lot of information about the pictures we show. The extended photo album. There were some pictures that we didn't have time to get on. You can go check that out as well. And then, of course, later this evening, 10:00 p.m. Eastern time, just a few hours from now, we do hope to have fresh glimpses from the red planet, places on the red planet you've never seen before. This will be tundra. Won't be rocks. It won't be like what those rovers have been sending back all these years.

SQUYRES: It's going to look like something no one has ever seen. O'BRIEN: All right. And we will be sharing it with you. Stay with us as we bring those pictures to you as soon as they come back. For now, I'm Miles O'Brien, CNN space correspondent live in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Up next, "SIU: The First Patient" with CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Stay with us.