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Finding life on Mars remains a tantalizing goal. NASA's next Mars rover mission isn't explicitly designed to look for life, but it will look for evidence life could have once existed on the red planet. And that poses a problem. Where could that evidence be? Ask six Mars experts, and you'll probably get seven answers.
But right now, one of the leading suggestions for the next rover landing site comes from a teenager who hasn't yet finished high school. As part of his series Joe's Big Idea, NPR's Joe Palca has this story about a young man with some big ideas of his own.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: When I visited Alex Longo at his home in Raleigh, N.C., the first thing I was curious to learn was when this precocious 16-year-old had become obsessed with Mars.
ALEX LONGO: Well, it wasn't just really Mars. My first experience with space exploration was in 2005. I was just 5 years old, and Mom and Dad had me watch a space shuttle launch.
PALCA: Watching that shuttle launch was the start. Alex decided not only did he want to go into space someday himself, he wanted to be the first person to walk on Mars. He began following NASA missions on the agency's website. And one day in 2014, he came across an announcement about the next rover mission to Mars.
A. LONGO: I saw that they were looking for abstracts from scientists to suggest landing sites. And I decide, well, I'll write something up.
PALCA: He figured - why not? He'd written to NASA before.
A. LONGO: Each time, you know, they sent me cool space shuttle mission posters or patches or something like that. I was like, well, I'll write to them, and maybe they'll send me some cool stuff.
PALCA: But then he thought, maybe he should tell his mom what he was planning.
LAURA LONGO: He said, hey, Mom, can I send this in to NASA?
PALCA: That's Laura Longo.
L. LONGO: And I said, well, let's take a look at it. And I sat down, and it's this multi-page, like, scientific document. And I said, oh, honey, that's really cool, thinking he's going to get some more swag (laughter). It's going to be great.
PALCA: Alex's proposal was to land in the same place NASA's rover called Spirit had landed, a place called Gusev crater. Spirit found some intriguing potential signs there was once life on Mars. Some scientists would surely say, been there, done that. But Alex argued Gusev was worth a second look. NASA apparently agreed because instead of swag, they sent him an email inviting him to attend the first landing-site planning meeting.
A. LONGO: At first, I didn't believe it. I thought that it was a dream or something. And so I just got up, walked away. And a little while later, I came back, and that email was still there (laughter). I was like, wow, I actually just got invited to go to a NASA conference. How cool is that?
PALCA: The meeting was in Washington, D.C. His mom and dad drove him there. Alex was scheduled to speak in the last session of the conference.
A. LONGO: Honestly, I was a bit scared because there are a 125 Ph.D.s and grad students in that room. And I'm giving a presentation to all these people.
L. LONGO: I was focused on breathing so I wouldn't fall out of the chair.
PALCA: Laura Longo still beams when she recalls that day.
L. LONGO: When he finished, the entire room burst into applause. Everybody recognized how special...
A. LONGO: Yes.
L. LONGO: ...This was for this young person.
PALCA: That was 2014. Alex has now teamed up with some more experienced Mars scientists who also favor going back to Gusev crater. Their proposal is one of eight finalists. Alex also wangled an invitation to a NASA-sponsored conference to pick a landing site for the first human landing on Mars. He figured he had to go to that.
A. LONGO: Because if I really am going to be the first guy to go there, I want a say in where I'm going to be landing.
PALCA: Well, makes sense to me. Joe Palca, NPR News, Raleigh, N.C.
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