Fas­ci­na­tion with Mars may en­ter a new era Mon­day

Star-Telegram (Sunday) - - Nation & World -

In our so­lar sys­tem fam­ily, Mars is Earth’s next-of-kin, the next-door 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 1/2 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.

“Try­ing to un­der­stand how life is – or was – dis­trib­uted across our so­lar sys­tem is one of the ma­jor ques­tions that we have,” Glaze said Wed­nes­day at a news con­fer­ence.

“Are we alone? Were we alone some­time in the past?”

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.

Michael Meyer, NASA’s lead sci­en­tist for Mars ex­plo­ration, said the Mar­tian sur­face is too cold and dry, with too much ra­di­a­tion bom­bard­ment, for life to cur­rently ex­ist.

Recorded ob­ser­va­tions of Mars – about dou­ble the size of Earth’s moon – date back to an­cient Egypt. But it wasn’t un­til the 19th cen­tury that Mars ma­nia truly set in.

Ital­ian as­tronomer Gio­vanni Schi­a­par­elli be­gan map­ping Mars in the 1870s and de­scribed the ob­served chan­nels as “canali” – Ital­ian for chan­nels. But with the re­cently com­pleted Suez Canal on many minds, “canali” be­came un­der­stood as ar­ti­fi­cial, alien-made canals.

Adding to the com­mo­tion, the U.S. as­tronomer be­hind the Low­ell Ob­ser­va­tory near Flagstaff, Ari­zona, Per­ci­val Low­ell, de­cided the chan­nels were trans­port­ing water from the poles for in­tel­li­gent civ­i­liza­tions liv­ing near the equa­tor.

Low­ell’s mus­ings in­flu­enced H.G. Wells, au­thor of “The War of the Worlds” in 1898. The 1938 ra­dio broad­cast of the sci­ence-fic­tion novel ter­ri­fied many Amer­i­cans who thought Mar­tians were ac­tu­ally in­vad­ing.

Ray Brad­bury’s clas­sic 1950 novel, “The Mar­tian Chron­i­cles,” kept up the Mars mo­men­tum.

Fast-for­ward to the 21st cen­tury, and SpaceX founder and sci­ence fic­tion en­thu­si­ast Elon Musk is lead­ing a real-life charge to Mars. He en­vi­sions hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple stream­ing to Mars in gi­ant SpaceX ships and col­o­niz­ing the red planet in or­der to con­tinue the species.

Just this past week, Musk re­vealed new names for the in­ter­plan­e­tary ships and booster rock­ets: Star­ship and Su­per Heavy.

Musk is so pas­sion­ate about Mars that he hopes to die there one day, al­though he stresses not on im­pact.

While NASA is hold­ing out for its own Mars mis­sions with crews, it has turned its more im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion back to the moon. An or­bit­ing out­post near the moon could serve as an em­barka­tion point for the lu­nar sur­face and even Mars, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials. It also would serve as a close-to-home prov­ing ground be­fore as­tro­nauts zoom 100 mil­lion miles to Mars.

Ob­ser­va­tions and re­ports from NASA’s ro­botic ex­plor­ers at Mars will help the hu­man Mars pi­o­neers, said Thomas Zur­buchen, chief of sci­ence mis­sions for NASA.

AP

NASA says its In­Sight lan­der is sched­uled to touch down on Mars about 2 p.m. Cen­tral on Mon­day. It will plunge through the thin at­mos­phere, heat­shield first, and use a para­chute to slow down.

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