Press Release

National Geographic Channel Takes You On Real-life Adventures to the Red Planet and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

By SpaceRef Editor
November 1, 2008
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This November, let the National Geographic Channel take you on two real Space Age adventures — to the Red Planet and beyond!

It could be the basis for a sequel to the Pixar sci-fi movie Wall-E, except this is the real-life odyssey of two robots. On Sunday, November 2, 2008, at 8 p.m. ET/PT, NGC brings the adventures of solar-powered robotic rovers Spirit and Opportunity to the screen in Five Years on Mars, a vivid high-definition visualization of their parallel missions on either side of the Red Planet.  Using photo-realistic animation based on the actual landscape as captured by the rovers’ cameras, the one-hour special dramatizes the trials and tribulations of these intrepid explorers while highlighting new scientific information on the planet’s geology and water history.

Launched in 2003, Spirit and Opportunity were originally expected to collect data over 90 Martian days, called “sols.”  What began as a short-term science mission looking for evidence of ancient water has turned into one of the greatest adventures of the Space Age. After almost five years in operation, they have astonishingly survived, proving more resilient and luckier than anyone could have predicted.  They’ve trekked miles across hostile plains, climbed mountains, ventured in and out of deep craters, gotten stuck in sand dunes, survived dust storms and mechanical failures, and cheated death so often no one will venture a guess as to how much longer they might last.

Five Years on Mars captures the emotional highs and lows experienced by the scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., who spend their days seeing through the rovers’ eyes and now think of Spirit and Opportunity in almost human terms.  Spirit is the hard luck rover who trekked for months across a barren desert, scaled a mountain and lost a wheel before finding anything of scientific interest. Opportunity is the lucky one for whom everything has gone right from the moment it landed right on top of abundant evidence of early Martian water.

“It was like being inside this bizarre Martian mystery novel,” says Steve Squyres, lead scientist, JPL.  “Every sol or two you’d get a new clue handed to you, and it really improved our understanding of what we were dealing with here.”

Later that same night, on November 2, at 10 p.m. ET/PT, venture even further into space and see the remarkable ways scientists are searching for extraterrestrial life in Calling All Aliens.  From building the most sensitive “ear” of all time — the massive Allen Telescope Array — to sending interstellar CD and text messages, there are myriad ways to try to make contact.

The one-hour special takes viewers to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, Calif., where scientists have activated 42 out of the planned 350 giant radio dishes that make up the Allen Telescope Array.  SETI never had a dedicated instrument like this to use in the search for ET 24/7 — until now.  Funded in part by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the dishes collect datastreams from outer space that are then analyzed to determine if they carry any unusual frequencies.  Monitoring computers alert the scientific team when a particularly strong signal comes through … but so far nothing has led them to believe that ET is trying to phone Earth.

Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact was based on Jill Tarter, director of the Allen Telescope Array project and considered the “Grande Dame” of SETI research.  SETI lost funding from NASA and Congress back in 1993, and they are now a nonprofit organization counting on donations like Paul Allen’s … and anyone who wants to buy a telescope in the array.

“You can buy a telescope and have your name on it,” says Tarter.  “The price tag is $100,000.  That’s a big number in some sense, but a very small number for a radio telescope!”

SETI astronomer Seth Shostak, who hosts a weekly radio show called “Are We Alone?,” is very optimistic about his colleagues’ ingenuity in undertaking the search and about the advancements in technology.

“Our galaxy has a few hundred billion star systems, so it doesn’t surprise that me we haven’t found other intelligent life yet,” says Shostak.  “But the search is speeding up, and I think everybody deep down inside wishes that the experiment would succeed while they’re still around to see that happen.”

In Florida, one company claims it can make that happen for just $299.  For that price, anyone can send a CD, text or music message out into space using a radio transmission device.  Across the globe in Moscow, radio engineer Alexander Zaitsev, in conjunction with METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence), has sent several messages into space on a directive from the Russian Academy of Sciences.  Also in Russia, they are planning to take it a step further by sending samples of human DNA into space to show what we’re made of to any highly intelligent life forms out there.

But not everyone is eager to make contact.  Author David Brin thinks it is dangerous to try to communicate to a life form that we have no real knowledge of.   He fears ET will come to annihilate the human race.

“I’m not claiming that there are a million deadly horrible probes out there,” says Brin.  “But there is no proof that there are not.”

Also on November 2, in between Five Years on Mars and Calling All Aliens, catch an encore presentation of Naked Science: Life on Mars at 9 p.m. ET/PT.  Join NASA’s Phoenix Mission to determine if life could have existed — or can exist — on our closest planetary neighbor.

Five Years on Mars is produced by Mark Davis Productions for the National Geographic Channel.  For Mark Davis Productions, producer, writer and director is Mark Davis. For the National Geographic Channel executive producer is Howard Swartz, senior vice president of special programming is Michael Cascio and executive vice president of content is Steve Burns.

Calling All Aliens is produced by VIDICOM in association with ARTE/ZDF, Channel 5 Russia, SBS TV Australia and co-produced with SPIEGEL TV and Corona Films St. Petersburg. Executive producer is Peter Bardehle and director is Christian Schidlowski. For the National Geographic Channel, producer is Lauren Cardillo, senior vice president of special programming is Michael Cascio and executive vice president of content is Steve Burns.

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Based at the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., the National Geographic Channel (NGC) is a joint venture between National Geographic Ventures (NGV) and Fox Cable Networks (FCN). Since launching in January 2001, NGC initially earned some of the fastest distribution growth in the history of cable and more recently the fastest ratings growth in television. The network celebrated its fifth anniversary in January 2006 with the launch of NGC HD, which provides the spectacular imagery that National Geographic is known for in stunning high-definition. NGC has carriage with all of the nation’s major cable and satellite television providers, making it currently available to more than 68 million homes. For more information, please visit

SpaceRef staff editor.