With luck, fas­ci­na­tion with Mars will en­ter a new era

The Sun News (Sunday) - - News - BY MAR­CIA DUNN Not

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.”

AP

NASA says its In­Sight lan­der is sched­uled to touch down on the sur­face of Mars about 3 p.m. Mon­day.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.