Fas­ci­na­tion with Mars may soon en­ter new era

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - NEWS - BY MAR­CIA DUNN As­so­ci­ated Press CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA.

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, alien­made 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.

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.

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.

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.

Go­ing to Mars is “a dream,” said the French Space Agency’s Philippe Laudet, project man­ager for In­sight’s seis­mome­ter. “Ev­ery­thing is cap­ti­vat­ing.”

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