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News Brief: Texas Storm, Facebook's Australian Restrictions, Mars Landing

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An old song about Texas declares, the stars at night are big and bright.

NOEL KING, HOST:

And it doesn't rhyme, but we can add the stars at night are easier to see when all the lights in your neighborhood are out. Things in Texas are still messy. Some people finally got back the electricity they lost after snow and ice storms, but many didn't. And now about 7 million people are being told to boil their water because it might not be safe to drink. So if you have a boil water advisory and an electric stove, you are clearly facing a rough few days.

INSKEEP: Christopher Connelly is a reporter with NPR member station KERA in Dallas. Good morning.

CHRISTOPHER CONNELLY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How are you spending your days?

CONNELLY: Well, you know, Steve, we're some of the lucky ones. We've had power throughout the duration. I think that's because we're on the same circuit as a hospital down the street. You know, we've also had water throughout, so we're lucky. We did start harvesting water from dripping faucets, that's a new activity, collecting it in tubs and containers so we'll have drinkable water in case we get a boil notice. We also have a new roommate in our apartment, a friend of mine who's in her 80s who lost power and was stuck in a cold house for more than a day before we were able to pick her up.

INSKEEP: Wow.

CONNELLY: So, you know, it's been eventful, but we count ourselves as some of the lucky ones.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm glad you were able to pick her up and take care of her. And, of course, when you talk about dripping faucets, you've been leaving the faucets dripping, I trust, so that the pipes don't actually freeze.

CONNELLY: Yeah.

INSKEEP: But what went wrong with the water for millions of people?

CONNELLY: Right. So there's a whole bunch of things that have led to, you know, that 7 million people with a boil water notice all of them linked together. We had water treatment plants across the state that either lost power or had essential equipment freeze. There are pipes that burst, burst water mains. There are burst pipes in people's homes. And there's been a massive surge in water usage this week with everyone dripping their faucets to keep the pipes from freezing. And all together, these factors mean pressure in the system drops, and low pressure means that water districts can't guarantee that water from the tap is safe. There are also about a quarter million Texans, or at least there were yesterday afternoon, who had a complete water outage. They had nothing coming out of their pipes.

INSKEEP: Wow. And of course, then there's the electricity. What's the progress on restoring that?

CONNELLY: Yeah. More than a million and a half Texans saw their power restored yesterday. More should see power coming back on today. That's the result of some power plants coming back online after they'd been inactive. Still, there are just a lot of people who don't have power. One tracking website showed about a million customers that didn't have power this morning. Those numbers are a little fuzzy because not all electric companies are reporting their data. And also, you know, people are seeing their power cycling on and off and they're going to see that throughout the day. Governor Greg Abbott signalled that those rolling blackouts would continue even as more power generation is added to the state. During a press conference, he said that one problem that's contributed to the power outages has been that natural gas produced in Texas was being sold and shipped out of state, even while natural gas power plants here were sitting idle because they didn't have enough gas to burn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: I have earlier today issued an order effective today through February the 21 requiring those producers that have been shipping to locations outside of Texas to instead sell that natural gas to Texas power generators.

CONNELLY: You know, whether Abbott's order can pass legal muster, that is an open question, you know. And another facet to the power coming back on - pipes that froze and burst, once the heat comes back on, that water thaws out and it's flooding people's homes. So now, after suffering days in the cold, people are scrambling to call plumbers and insurance companies.

INSKEEP: What else are you hearing from people as you make calls?

CONNELLY: People are exhausted. They're frustrated. They're scared. People don't know what's going to happen next. I talked to someone I know who has a 15-month-old baby, and they were stuck at home in the cold without power for almost 40 hours before they were able to get to a friend's house who had electricity. He said his daughter cried for a whole day in that cold. Everyone here knows so many people who are at wit's end. Luis Pino (ph), who lives in Fort Worth, he told my colleague that he's angry with the government's response and angry that power companies failed to prepare.

LUIS PINO: They make millions in the energy area and they cannot handle a snowstorm. You know, I understand the freezing temperatures but come on - South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, all the states that are up there, they're not shut down.

CONNELLY: I think it's pretty fair to say that a lot of Texans are just angry that the situation was ever allowed to get this bad.

INSKEEP: Reporter Christopher Connelly of KERA in Dallas in a slightly more crowded home, thanks so much.

CONNELLY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Once in a while, we hear from listeners in Australia. If you were among them, the big news today is the lack of news articles on Facebook.

KING: Yeah. The Facebook pages for news outlets like Sky News and ABC Australia are effectively dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Facebook has taken the stunning step of banning Australian users and publishers from viewing or sharing news articles on its website.

KING: And people outside of the country can't share or view Australian news either. So what is Facebook up to?

INSKEEP: Let's check in with NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond. And before we dive in, we'll mention that Facebook is a financial supporter of NPR and we cover them just like any other company. Hey there, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What caused Facebook's move in Australia?

BOND: Well, there's this proposed law in Australia that would force tech companies like Facebook to pay big publishers when they link to their stories. And what's behind the law is, you know, there's been this long-running criticism from media companies who have lost, you know, billions of dollars in advertising over the years to Google and Facebook, to these big platforms that, you know, are just so dominant in digital advertising. And there's concern that that has really, you know, hollowed out news coverage. Publishers just can't compete. The tech giants are too big, too dominant. This fight has been brewing for months. The proposal is expected to become law very soon. And Facebook is just saying, you know, we're not going to play by these new rules.

INSKEEP: Well, how does Facebook justify that?

BOND: The way this proposal works, you know, it says the platforms have to reach deals with publishers for payments. But Facebook says the law, quote, "fundamentally misunderstands" its relationship with news outlets. Its view is that newspapers, news outlets choose to post on Facebook and that ultimately the publishers benefit more than Facebook itself does. But interestingly, Google, which is also an NPR sponsor and which had also threatened to shut down its search engine in Australia until very recently, has now taken a different path. It struck payment deals with several big publishers. Most notably, Google announced a three-year deal with News Corp, which owns The Wall Street Journal, as well as several Australian papers, to feature some stories. And I say that's notable because News Corp is, of course, run by Rupert Murdoch, and he's Australian. He's a powerful force in media and politics there. He's thrown his support behind this law. And this is something he's been lobbying for for years for the tech companies to pay for news content.

INSKEEP: Well, Murdoch also has a tiny bit of influence here in the United States. Are social media companies especially concerned about Australia because they wonder if anything that sets a precedent there might spread to the United States?

BOND: Yeah. I mean, the U.S. and frankly, anywhere, you know, and that is exactly I think what Facebook's concerned about is, you know, capitulating in one place sets that precedent. Lawmakers in Canada and Europe have said they're open to this approach. Just last week, another U.S. tech giant, Microsoft, said it supported a version of the Australian law in the U.S. But, you know, Steve, even if for right now this is just playing out in Australia, you know, it has big consequences. We know Facebook has a big problem with misinformation. It's talking about how it needs to promote accurate information as a big part of that fight. But the situation right now in Australia is, you know, you may have people on Facebook posting false or harmful claims. Now other people can't post the kind of news stories that might refute them. People are really worried that this is going to make that worse.

INSKEEP: NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond, thanks for your reporting.

BOND: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: A mission to Mars comes today.

KING: NASA's latest rover to visit the Red Planet is called Perseverance. Its mission is to search for signs of life. Perseverance is going to descend into a region of craters and cliffs and big boulders that scientists say should be rich for exploration.

INSKEEP: Joining us now to preview today's events is NPR's always persevering science correspondent Joe Palca. Joe, good morning.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so this is just - I mean, it's almost a miracle of science that they can even pull this off. You've got a multibillion-dollar piece of science equipment and you're going to safely land it on a planet millions of miles away. How do you do that?

PALCA: Yeah, it's crazy. It comes in at about 12,000 miles per hour and lands at two miles per hour. What you do is you take advantage of the fact that Mars has an atmosphere and the capsule heats up as it enters the atmosphere. There's a heat shield that protects it. Then there's a parachute that comes out, and then there's this rocket-powered jet pack, which flies to the landing site and lowers the rover down on a tether. And it's got this - it's like what they used for the Curiosity rover, the last rover to land. But it's got this modern technology that it can actually search the ground for a great landing site. But, you know, the curious thing is, as modern as all these computers and navigation systems are, the design of the rocket engines on the skycrane is 50 years old.

JOE CASSADY: Believe it or not, those engines all trace their way back to the Viking landers.

PALCA: Joe Cassady is executive director for Space at Aerojet Rocketdyne, the company that makes the rocket engine. The Viking missions landed on Mars in the mid-'70s. Cassady says the rocket design depended on a special valve that made it possible to vary the rocket's thrust.

CASSADY: The funny part is back in the '70s, we had a supplier that actually developed that for us. When JPL came back to us in the latter part of the first decade of the 21st century and said, we want you to do that again, that supplier was no longer in business.

PALCA: Luckily, they were able to find somebody else who could make the valve.

INSKEEP: OK, so old-time rockets, very new technology. They will tweak the landing as it's happening. But they have a general area where they're aiming for to search for signs of life. Why pick there?

PALCA: Yeah, so this is a place called Jezero Crater. They think there was a lake there once 3 1/2 billion years ago. There might have been rivers flowing into the lake, and there might have been microbes in the lake. So cameras on the rover will study the appearance of the rocks, and they'll be looking for things like called stromatolites, which are structures left behind by mats of bacteria. And the instruments on the rover will also be able to measure the chemical and mineral composition of the rocks. Nina Lanza is a geologist at Los Alamos National Lab and a scientist on one of the instruments on the rover called SuperCam.

NINA LANZA: And, see, this is the kind of thing that a geologist needs, right? We need both chemistry - what's in a rock - and mineralogy - how it's arranged.

PALCA: So you need to know these things because they tell you a lot about the conditions under which the rocks formed and whether the conditions were conducive to life. Now the mission is designed to collect rock samples and return them to Earth on a future mission so that if they do find signs of life, they can test them in labs on Earth and be absolutely certain that what they're seeing is life and not something that just looks like life and really isn't.

INSKEEP: Joe, I think we should call you NPR's Perseverance correspondent for the duration of this mission.

PALCA: Or maybe just Persy (ph). How's that?

INSKEEP: (Laughter) If you're OK with that nickname, it's fine. Persy, thanks so much.

PALCA: OK, yeah. All right.

INSKEEP: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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