‘NOVA’ makes a comprehensive journey to ‘The Planets’

A new five-part presentation is fueled by ‘The Planets’

NASA scientists Ashwin Vasavada and Linda Spilker are interviewed in “NOVA: The Planets,” which begins a five-part run Wednesday on PBS (check local listings).

How much do you really know about Mars? Or Neptune? Or Saturn?

PBS’ “NOVA” arguably is the most appropriate television series to administer that quiz, and it does so with the five-part presentation “The Planets” starting Wednesday, July 24 (check local listings). Narrated by Zachary Quinto (“Star Trek,” “NOS4A2”) and airing over four weeks, the co-production with England’s BBC begins with the episode “Inner Worlds” — encompassing a planet called Earth — as it uses footage and data collected from space missions, as well as computer-generated imagery, to present a thorough look at the solar system.

“When I was in school, we hadn’t launched Voyager yet, and those outer planets were really just seen in a telescope from Earth,” says Dr. Linda Spilker, a participant in “The Planets” and a NASA scientist who worked on the Cassini spacecraft’s mission to Saturn. “Now, you see this giant planet with this beautiful ring system, almost like a miniature solar system. (You learn that) maybe the rings came to be about the time of the dinosaurs, and that the rings are slowly eroding away. Maybe in another 100 to 200 million years, the rings will be gone. But just in a brief time in history, right now where we live, here are the rings around Saturn.”

“NOVA: The Planets” begins a five-part run Wednesday on PBS (check local listings).

Adds fellow “The Planets” interviewee Dr. Ashwin Vasavada, who has been involved in NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover project, “We are passionate about the science that we’ve been learning, and we love to communicate that, so I hope people really get to know Saturn and get to know Mars. Being more on the Mars side, what I really hope people see is that Mars really is another world … and, in its early days, was a world so much like Earth. I’m not sure people have that appreciation.

“There’s a great line in the (Mars) episode (which also airs on July 24) that I’m not responsible for,” Vasavada notes. “Someone says, ‘The Red Planet was once blue.’ That’s just kind of mind-blowing, and I really hope people understand that wonderful journey that Mars went on, and that it’s not just the planet that it is today.”

“The Planets” producer Gideon Bradshaw explains that the series’ ample time spent on the planets’ ancient past mines a “really dramatic, deep history, how they were born and then how they’ve evolved over time. It’s not settled science, a lot of this stuff — so what we tried to do was just try and talk to people like (the featured scientists) and try and reach consensus about where the current understanding is. But that’s the joy of science, you know: progress. It always marches on. We learn more the more we look.”

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

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