With luck, fascination with Mars will enter a new era
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 a 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 41⁄ billion years
2 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.
“Trying to understand how life is – or was – distributed across our solar system is one of the major questions that we have,” Lori Glaze, NASA’s acting director of planetary science, said Wednesday at a news conference.
“Are we alone? Were we alone sometime in the past?”
In two years, NASA actually will seek evidence of ancient microbial life on Mars – if, indeed, it’s there.
Last Monday, 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. 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 to ancient Egypt. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that Mars mania truly set in.
Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli began mapping Mars during 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.
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.
Going to Mars is “a dream,” said the French Space Agency’s Philippe Laudet, project manager for InSight’s seismometer. “Everything is captivating.”
NASA says its InSight lander is scheduled to touch down on the surface of Mars about 3 p.m. Monday.