Roving the Red Planet


This illustration shows NASA’s Mars 2020 spacecraft carrying the Perseverance rover as it approaches Mars.
NASA’s Mars 2020 spacecraft carrying Perseverance rover as it approaches Mars. Illustration: NASA/JPL-Catech

On Jan. 12, 300 Levy Lecture attendees sat transfixed in front of their screens as they watched Michelle Nichols, Director of Public Observing at the Adler Planetarium, give a virtual lecture about the anticipated landing of the Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars on Feb. 18. Ms. Nichols’ presentation is part of an ongoing series of weekly Levy Lectures presented by the Levy Senior Center Foundation.

For more than 90 minutes, Ms. Nichols regaled the group with facts about Mars, its atmosphere and terrain, how it compares to Earth, and its placement within the rest of the solar system. She described what is known based on 50 years of research sending spacecraft to Mars, how the rovers are constructed, and what research the Perseverance rover is scheduled to conduct, assuming it lands safely and is able to move around the surface of Mars. Her presentation was enhanced with numerous photos from NASA, most of them available to the public through the NASA website, and easy-to-understand graphics that compared the sizes of areas within Martian geography with similar examples on Earth.


Her enthusiasm for her topic and all things astronomical had the crowd spellbound. One audience member commented afterward, “She was so patient and exciting. Could have listened to her for hours.” Another attendee swooned, saying “Fascinating speaker. I think she could make the phone book interesting.” Ms. Nichols happily answered scores of questions typed in by the viewing audience, and was inspired by one question to retrieve her work ‘briefcase’ and pull out her encapsulated sample of Martian rock, which she proudly held up to the camera.

The webinar is available on the Foundation’s YouTube channel. Watch Ms. Nichols display the colorful array of Martian soil samples (not just shades of red, to be sure), demonstrate how scientists know Mars is geologically active, and explain why this research is helpful, hopeful, and has been used to solve problems on Earth. Watch to get ‘ready’ for Perseverance’s landing, in advance of the Adler’s “Mars Rover Landing Watch Party,” to be held on their YouTube channel live from 1-3 pm CST on Feb. 18.


The most poignant moment of the webinar came about with Ms. Nichols’ answer to the final question of the afternoon, “What sparked your interest in astronomy and the universe?” Ms. Nichols said there were three things that helped her: she saw Star Wars in 1977, the summer it was released (she was 4); her mother was a Star Trek fan and they watched all the reruns together; in 1980, she watched Carl Sagan’s television series, “Cosmos.” She elaborated, describing how her parents nurtured her interest in astronomy. They joined the Adler Planetarium as a family and visited it frequently, she received a magazine subscription to Astronomy magazine, and she went to Space Camp. They encouraged her interest and gave her the tools to pursue it.


Ms. Nichols’ takeaway message for everyone was, “If you have a young person in your life who is interested in something, regardless of the subject, help them nurture it. Buy them something that speaks to their interest. Take them on trips, buy them a relevant book or help them get a library card.” She mentioned she had family members who did these things for her. She was lucky to have many teachers who encouraged her in her interests and never said, “Michelle, you can’t do that.” When she had an adviser in college who was not supportive, she requested a new adviser.


She implored the adults to encourage the kids in their lives, saying “Whatever the interest is, just go with that. Do whatever you can to help them out. They won’t get it from a single experience. It has to be layered. So a magazine, a book, a library pass, a planetarium visit, go to Space Camp. Anything you can do.”


By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.