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NASA engineer on call with President Biden, Mars mission

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President Joe Biden called the team behind the NASA Perseverance rover to congratulate them Thursday on a successful landing on Mars. Elizabeth Duffy, a mechanical engineer with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who worked on the project's sample collecting system, spoke with Anne-Marie Green and Vladimir Duthiers on CBSN about getting accolades from the president, the amazing discoveries made on the red planet so far and what's to come.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: In Space Watch, NASA's Perseverence rover is working to solve mysteries on Mars. It landed on the red planet just a few weeks ago and is already gathering clues to help us figure out if life ever existed there. Elizabeth Duffy is a mechanical engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She's part of the team that worked on the Perseverence rover. And she joins us now. This is so cool.

So Elizabeth, President Biden had a call with your team yesterday to congratulate all of you. Let's first play a clip of that. And we'll talk about it.

JOE BIDEN: I just can't tell you how much I believe historians are going to write about what you did at the moment you all did it, at the moment you all did it. You should take such great pride, such great pride in what you did. We can land a rover on Mars. We can beat a pandemic. And with science, hope, and vision, there's not a damn thing we can't do as a country.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Science, hope, and vision, that sort of encapsulates the entirety of what you all are doing and how significant it was to land this rover on Mars. What was that like, talking to the President of the United States and explaining to him what our goals are here?

ELIZABETH DUFFY: Yeah, yeah. It was really cool to have President Biden call us. Felt really honored to be able to be a part of that. He really hit the nail on the head to me, in that we achieved this at a really critical time in our country, when maybe people have been feeling down over the past year and needed a little encouragement and maybe didn't know what our outlook and future of science was going to be.

So here, us at NASA, we never stopped pushing forward. And we won't. Science is the future. It's what's going to allow us to understand more about our world and other worlds. And I think he really got that. And it certainly was very exciting for us to get that call.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So Perseverence landed last month in a crater that once held water. Can you talk to us about how the rover finds and picks up samples? Is it looking for certain factors? Or is it just sort of like scraping up whatever comes its way?

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Well, wait. Is it confirmed that it did have water? Because if it did, then that would indicate life, right?

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: It once had water. I think that's why they picked the crater. Because there's a possibility.

ELIZABETH DUFFY: From aerial views from orbiters, what we do is we look around Mars. And we look for geological formations that look similar to those on Earth. So from that data, we do know that this crater, Jezero Crater, was probably once a lake bed. And just by looking at different parts of those formations and comparing them to Earth--

Now, we even pinpointed a part of the crater that we think would be most interesting for science. And that is the edge of a crater, where it looks like there was a river delta. And so if you think about Earth and river deltas and water flowing into bigger parts of a lake, it really is an intense area of life.

There's deposits that are left on rocks. There's microbial life that exists there. And so that's what we're really looking for. So we pinpointed a place that we wanted to land that we think is going to be most interesting to sample.

And we have a state of the art sampling system on the rover. That is what I mostly worked on as a mechanical engineer. I was a lead engineer for the turret, which is the hand of the arm. So it's all the equipment at the end of the robotic arm. That includes a coring drill.

So that drill is going to core into the surface of Mars, into rocks, and actually break off a piece of that rock. It'll be about the size of a piece of chalk. Now, that sample will be ingested into a tube that is installed into that bit.

So once we have a sample, we reach back into the belly of the rover. And we give that sample over to another whole system that is inside the belly of the rover.

Now, this smaller arm actually takes that sample tube and takes pictures of it. It does some tests to see how much of a core we collected. And that's going to tell us a little bit of the success of breaking off that piece of the rock.

And this animation is showing that. This is when it goes back to the belly of the rover and drops that off.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: So cool.

ELIZABETH DUFFY: Eventually, we then dispense a seal into that tube. We seal it up. And we hold it in storage in the rover at some point during the mission.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: That is just so, so very cool. It's like I hear the excitement as you're describing it. As you're describing it to us, you're just getting more and more excited. And then, guys, and then it does this.

ELIZABETH DUFFY: I can't help it.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Well, it's funny because my puny brain is trying to keep up with all of this math and science. And it's sort of like it's trying to start an old jalopy. It's like-- [IMITATES STARTER MOTOR]

So let me ask you, the rover also picked up the first ever audio recordings of wind on Mars. I want to play some of that for you.

[WIND BUFFETS MICROPHONE]

So Elizabeth, it was the same thing. When we first played some of this sound on our morning show, "CBS This Morning," one of the sound engineers came out and was all geeking out. He's like, did you hear that? Did you hear the wind on Mars?

And I'm like, all these people who are engineers are geeking out over this stuff. It's so cool. So what does hearing the wind on Mars tell us about the atmosphere there?

ELIZABETH DUFFY: Sure. So I think of the microphones on the rover as adding another sense for us. So we have the cameras. We can see. We've got a really great close-up images of Mars. Now we're going to be able to hear it also. And it just is going to give us this whole picture of what it's like to be on Mars.

Hearing the wind is just so awesome. When you think about it, we are hearing something that is so far away on another planet. And now we know what that wind gust actually sounds like. It's going to just be able to tell us a whole complete story of Mars, which is what we're after.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Elizabeth, before I let you go, really quickly, just-- I had a lot of friends in college who were engineers. And they all work for hedge funds now. Why did you decide to pursue this path in pursuit of science and now space exploration?

ELIZABETH DUFFY: If you can tell, I'm just so excited about it. I think it's just the future. And it's also such a fantastic environment to work in. Everyone that I work with, everyone at NASA and JPL are just as excited to be doing this exploration for the world, for mankind as I am. And so it's a great place to work. I feel very fortunate to be a part of it.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Elizabeth, I'm really looking forward to what Perseverence finds as part of your main push and goal. But I know there's going to be all sorts of other things that come up by mistake, by accident, like lucky accidents that are also going to be discovered that we'll be talking about as well. So really appreciate you spending time with us, Elizabeth Duffy.

ELIZABETH DUFFY: Thank you so much.