NOVA “Looking for Life on Mars” Goes Inside the Mission to Search for Life on the Red Planet

This high-resolution still image is part of a video taken by several cameras as NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021. A camera aboard the descent stage captured this shot. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
  • NOVA takes viewers behind the scenes as NASA’s Perseverance rover touches down in Mars’ Jezero crater
  • Premieres Wednesday, February 24 at 9 p.m. ET/8C on PBS
  • Also Available for Streaming Online and on the PBS video app

BOSTON, February 19, 2021 (PBS PR) — LOOKING FOR LIFE ON MARS, a one-hour special from the PBS science series NOVA, a production of GBH Boston, will follow NASA’s Mars 2020 mission—perhaps the most ambitious search yet for traces of ancient life on the red planet. The special premieres Wednesday, February 24 at 9 p.m. ET/8C on PBS and will be available for streaming online and on the PBS video app.

On February 18, a NASA spacecraft carrying the Perseverance rover blazed into the Martian atmosphere at some 12,000 miles per hour and lowered Perseverance into the rocky Jezero crater, home to a dried-up river delta scientists think could have harbored life. Now safely landed, Perseverance will comb the area for signs of life and collect samples for possible return to Earth. Some 130 million miles away, back on Earth, the mission’s thousands of scientists, researchers, and engineers watched and waited on tenterhooks—would the spacecraft to which they devoted years of work survive this crucial test? NOVA’s LOOKING FOR LIFE ON MARS brings viewers an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at this high-stakes mission to the red planet—one that hopes to answer the age-old question “Are we alone?”

Not only have NOVA’s cameras been following the mission since May 2019, but the film will also capture the mission’s latest developments: LOOKING FOR LIFE ON MARS will include still images from Perseverance’s February 18 arrival on Mars, released by NASA following the landing. It will also feature footage of reactions to the landing inside NASA’s mission control and interviews with key members of the Mars 2020 mission team, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology geobiologist and Project Science Group member Tanja Bosak; Planetary Protection Engineer Moogega Cooper; System Testbed Engineer Elio Morillo; Mission Lead Diana Trujillo; and Mechanical Engineer Aaron Yazzie.

“Scientists have been searching for life on Mars for decades, from the Viking missions of the 1970s to the Curiosity rover—whose discoveries set the stage for the Mars 2020 mission,” said producer Terri Randall of Randall Productions. “Despite the enormous challenges, thousands of scientists and space explorers across the globe came together with the single goal of finding answers to a fundamental question about our place in the universe. Their commitment to discovery and exploration is incredibly inspiring, and we are excited to share it with NOVA viewers.”

LOOKING FOR LIFE ON MARS captures both the astounding innovation and painstaking work that has gone into making this mission possible. The film traces the remarkable development of Ingenuity, the small helicopter accompanying Perseverance that could revolutionize the future of space exploration. We also meet MOXIE, the device designed to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, in hopes that a similar system could be used to create fuel—or air for humans to breathe—on future missions. What MOXIE finds will offer crucial information about whether humans could survive on Mars.

One of the mission’s most impressive innovations is Perservance’s one-of-a-kind sampling system, which took seven years to design, test, and build. Because the rover is not equipped to verify ancient Martian microbes, the samples it collects will have to be studied back on Earth—and any contamination could ruin the samples’ integrity. LOOKING FOR LIFE ON MARS takes viewers inside the mission’s clean room—the highly sterile space where a team ensures that the rover and the sampling system are free of earthly microbes: Over the course of the mission, they took 16,681 wipes, swabs, and air samples of the spacecraft and the surrounding environment.

With five months to go until launch day, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing unexpected shutdowns and delays that put the mission in jeopardy of missing its launch window. NOVA’s cameras capture the team’s Herculean effort to pull through the crisis, including the emotional, nerve-wracking launch day itself. “I can’t describe how excited and scared and nervous I am at the same time,” System Testbed Engineer Elio Morillo tells the cameras as he watches the launch—his first ever—with friends and family.

“Not only did this team put together the most sophisticated Mars mission to date, but they also successfully launched the spacecraft on time amid a global pandemic,” said NOVA Co-Executive Producer Julia Cort. “LOOKING FOR LIFE ON MARS is an exhilarating and wide-ranging look at this groundbreaking mission and the remarkable science and engineering developed in our quest to find life beyond Earth.”

LOOKING FOR LIFE ON MARS will also be accompanied by a new installment of NOVA Labs, the free digital platform that engages teens and lifelong learners in games and interactives that foster authentic scientific exploration. The Exoplanet Lab takes players beyond our solar system on a hunt for planets orbiting faraway stars that could be home to intelligent life. The Lab begins with a training module that helps players understand the conditions that make Earth so conducive to life—and what to look for in other, distant star systems in our Milky Way galaxy. Through a series of tasks modeled on the work of real-world scientists, players then embark on a series of missions to find suitable new homes for fictional alien species looking to relocate.

The Exoplanet Lab is part of the National Science Foundation-funded WHIMC project (What-If Hypothetical Implementations in Minecraft), based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. WHIMC uses Minecraft as a creative sandbox in which kids can explore alternative versions of Earth—like “What if Earth had no Moon?”—allowing researchers to study how “What If?” hypothetical scenarios might trigger engagement and learning in STEM. Exoplanets provide a fantastic playground for this kind of learning, offering students a chance not just to ponder what alien worlds and their inhabitants might be like, but to use proven scientific methods to find answers.

LOOKING FOR LIFE ON MARS is a NOVA Production by Terri Randall Productions for GBH Boston in association with Arte France and NHK. Executive Producers for NOVA are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt. NOVA is a production of GBH Boston.

Original funding for LOOKING FOR LIFE ON MARS was provided by Draper, the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the NOVA Science Trust with support from Margaret and Will Hearst, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers.

About NOVA

NOVA is the most popular primetime science series on American television, demystifying the scientific and technological concepts that shape and define our lives, our planet, and our universe. The PBS series is also one of the most widely distributed science programs around the world, and is a multimedia, multiplatform brand reaching more than 55 million Americans every year on TV and online. NOVA’s important and inspiring stories of human ingenuity, exploration, and the quest for knowledge are regularly recognized with the industry’s most prestigious awards. As part of its mission to make the scientific enterprise accessible to all, NOVA is committed to diversity and inclusiveness in all its work, from the production process to the range of stories we tell and the voices we amplify. In addition, science educators across the country rely on NOVA for resources used in the classroom as well as in museums, libraries, and after-school programs. NOVA is a production of GBH Boston; more information can be found at pbs.org/nova, or by following NOVA on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

About PBS

PBS, with nearly 350 member stations, offers all Americans the opportunity to explore new ideas and new worlds through television and digital content. Each month, PBS reaches nearly 100 million people through television and nearly 28 million people online, inviting them to experience the worlds of science, history, nature and public affairs; to hear diverse viewpoints; and to take front row seats to world-class drama and performances. PBS’ broad array of programs has been consistently honored by the industry’s most coveted award competitions. Teachers of children from pre-K through 12th grade turn to PBS for digital content and services that help bring classroom lessons to life. Decades of research confirms that PBS’ premier children’s media service, PBS KIDS, helps children build critical literacy, math and social-emotional skills, enabling them to find success in school and life. Delivered through member stations, PBS KIDS offers high-quality educational content on TV – including a new 24/7 channel, online at pbskids.org, via an array of mobile apps and in communities across America. More information about PBS is available at www.pbs.org, one of the leading dot-org websites on the internet, or by following PBS on Twitter, Facebook or through our apps for mobile and connected devices. Specific program information and updates for press are available at pbs.org/pressroom or by following PBS Pressroom on Twitter.

About GBH

GBH is the leading multiplatform creator for public media in America. As the largest producer of content for PBS and partner to NPR and PRX, GBH delivers compelling experiences, stories and information to audiences wherever they are. GBH produces digital and broadcast programming that engages, illuminates and inspires, through drama and science, history, arts, culture and journalism. It is the creator of such signature programs as MASTERPIECE, ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, FRONTLINE, NOVA, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, Arthur and Molly of Denali, as well as WORLD Channel and a catalog of streaming series, podcasts and on-demand video. With studios and a newsroom headquartered in Boston, GBH reaches across New England with GBH 89.7, Boston’s Local NPR®; CRB Classical 99.5; and CAI, the Cape and Islands NPR® station. Dedicated to making media accessible to and inclusive of our diverse culture, GBH is a pioneer in delivering media to those who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind and visually impaired. GBH creates curriculum-based digital content for educators nationwide with PBS LearningMedia and has been recognized with hundreds of the nation’s premier broadcast, digital and journalism awards. Find more information at wgbh.org.