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Human travel to Mars within reach, top NASA scientist says in Mars, Pa.

Aaron Aupperlee
| Friday, May 5, 2017, 5:42 p.m.
Bob Betton and Mindy Nething have their picture taken during the Mars New Year celebration Friday, May 5, 2017, in Mars, Butler County. The town is hosting two days of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) activities.
(NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Bob Betton and Mindy Nething have their picture taken during the Mars New Year celebration Friday, May 5, 2017, in Mars, Butler County. The town is hosting two days of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) activities.
NASA Mars Exploration Program Chief Scientist Michael Meyer is interviewed during the Mars New Year celebration Friday, May 5, 2017, in Mars, Butler County. The town is hosting two days of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) activities.
(NASA/Bill Ingalls)
NASA Mars Exploration Program Chief Scientist Michael Meyer is interviewed during the Mars New Year celebration Friday, May 5, 2017, in Mars, Butler County. The town is hosting two days of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) activities.

Mars' secrets could help us understand Earth's past and future.

And it's likely our best shot at living on another planet, Michael Meyer, NASA's chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program, told the Tribune-Review on Friday.

“We have the capabilities of going to Mars now,” Meyer said. ”The real question is what is the risk that you're willing to accept to go to Mars.”

Meyer was in Mars, Butler County, for the community's Martian New Year's celebration. Mars rings in the new year for Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun, every 22 months. A Martian year is 687 Earth days.

Click here for more on the Mars New Year's celebration.

NASA sent its first mission to Mars about 40 years ago. The Viking mission in 1976 carried with it hope that we would find life on Mars, Meyer said. Instead, we found a dead, dry planet.

But since, we're learn a great deal more about Mars. We've learned that Mars was habitable at one time. We've learned that Mars had an atmosphere and had water. It still might.

“That progression of knowledge has pointed to a planet that has more to offer in terms of its potential for life and whether or not that potential was in the past and gone or whether or not that potential is in the future for humans. It depends on how much we learn,” Meyer said.

The planet is without plate tectonics, meaning rocks on the surface of Mars date back to the first billion years of the planet's existence. Finding rocks that old on Earth is difficult, Meyer said.

“Mars has a record of what was going on in the solar system when life started in our solar system, and it will tell us about how we got here,” Meyer said, adding that Mars gives us a peek into how planets change as they age. “Studying Mars clues us in to how things work on Earth and also gives us some idea of what Earth may be headed toward.”

There's lots of science happening on Mars, Meyer said.

The Odyssey orbiter and Opportunity rover, which launched in 2001 and 2003, are still working. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2005, still circles the Red Planet sending back high-resolution photos. Curiosity landed in 2012 and is still on the move. And MAVEN, launched in 2013, is studying the planet's atmosphere.

See photos from the Curiosity rover

Humans on the surface of Mars could speed all that up and make it better, Meyer said.

“It's painfully slow,” Meyer said about exploring Mars with rovers. “Curiosity has been there since 2012. It's gone a little over 14 kilometers (8.75 miles). You can hike that in a day.”

Meyer said it wouldn't surprise him if a commercial space venture beats NASA's manned missions to Mars, slated for the 2030s. But Meyer doesn't see commercial space companies such as SpaceX or Blue Origin as competition for NASA. The commercial space race benefits NASA, he said. The new companies are driving down the cost of reaching space.

“The cheaper you can make getting into space, the better off we are in terms of the things that we can send into space,” Meyer said. “You keep on bringing the price down, and it becomes affordable.”

NASA's latest estimate for the cost of manned missions to Mars by the 2030s is $450 billion over the next three decades. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said his company will launch a Martian lander by 2020. Manned missions could happen later that decade.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell last month told people to start saving for the ticket to Mars , expected to cost $200,000.

NASA plans to send a rover to Mars in 2020.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

This story has been updated to identify Odyssey as an orbiter, not a rover.

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