With luck, fas­ci­na­tion with Mars en­ters a new era Mon­day

Lexington Herald-Leader (Sunday) - - News - BY MAR­CIA DUNN

In our so­lar sys­tem fam­ily, Mars is Earth’s next-of-kin, the nextdoor rel­a­tive that has cap­ti­vated hu­mans for mil­len­nia. The at­trac­tion is sure to grow with Mon­day’s ar­rival of a NASA lan­der named In­Sight.

In­Sight should pro­vide the best look yet at Mars’ deep in­te­rior, us­ing a me­chan­i­cal mole to tun­nel 16 feet deep to mea­sure in­ter­nal heat, and a seis­mome­ter to reg­is­ter quakes, me­te­orite strikes and any­thing else that might start the red planet shak­ing.

Sci­en­tists con­sider Mars a tan­ta­liz­ing time cap­sule. It is less ge­o­log­i­cally ac­tive than the twice-as-big Earth and so re­tains much of its early his­tory. By study­ing the pre­served heart of Mars, In­Sight can teach us how our so­lar sys­tem’s rocky plan­ets formed 4 bil­lion years ago and why they turned out so dif­fer­ent.

“Venus is hot enough to melt lead. Mer­cury has a sun­baked sur­face. Mars is pretty cold to­day. But Earth is a nice place to take a va­ca­tion, so we’d re­ally like to know why one planet goes one way, an­other planet goes an­other way,” said In­Sight’s lead sci­en­tist Bruce Ban­erdt of NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory in Pasadena, Cal­i­for­nia.

To­day’s Earth­lings are lured to Mars for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons.

Mars – “an in­cred­i­ble nat­u­ral lab­o­ra­tory” – is rea­son­ably easy to get to, and the U.S., at least, has a proven track record there, noted Lori Glaze, NASA’s act­ing di­rec­tor of plan­e­tary science.

The cherry on top is that Mars may have once been flush with wa­ter and could have har­bored life.

In two years, NASA will ac­tu­ally seek ev­i­dence of an­cient mi­cro­bial life on Mars – if, in­deed, it’s there.

On Nov. 19, the space agency an­nounced Jezero Crater as the land­ing site for the Mars 2020 rover, which will gather sam­ples and stash them for re­turn to Earth in the early 2030s. The crater’s an­cient lake and river sys­tem is brim­ming with di­verse rocks, mak­ing it a po­ten­tial hot spot for past life.

Re­peat, past life. NOT present.

All the ob­ser­va­tions and re­ports com­ing back from NASA’s robotic ex­plor­ers at Mars will help the hu­man Mars pi­o­neers, ac­cord­ing to Thomas Zur­buchen, chief of science mis­sions for NASA.

That’s the charm of Mars, ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists.

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