New lander will add along the fascination of humans with Mars


CABO CANAVERAL, Fla. – In our solar system family, Mars is the closest relative on Earth, the closest relative who has captivated humans for millennia. The attraction will surely grow with the arrival of a NASA lander named InSight.

InSight should provide the best possible appearance in the deep interior of Mars, using a mechanical mole to tunnel 5 meters deep to measure internal heat and a seismograph to record earthquakes, meteorite attacks and anything else that can start the red planet.

Scientists consider Mars a tempting time capsule. It is less geologically active than the Earth twice as large and thus retains much of its initial history. By studying the preserved heart of Mars, InSight can teach us how the rocky planets of our solar system formed four and a half billion years ago and why they have become so different.

"Venus is hot enough to melt lead. Mercury has a surface burned by the sun. Mars is very cold today. But Earth is a good place to take a vacation, so we'd really like to know why one planet goes one way, another planet goes another way, "said Bruce Banerdt, an InSight scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. .

Terrans today are drawn to Mars for several reasons.

Mars – "an incredible natural laboratory" – is reasonably easy to achieve, and the US at least has a proven track record, noted Lori Glaze, director of planetary science at NASA.

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

"Trying to understand how life is – or was – distributed throughout our solar system is one of the major issues we have," Glaze said Wednesday at a news conference.

"Are we alone? Were we alone in the past?

In two years, NASA will look for evidence of ancient microbial life on Mars – if indeed it is there.

On Monday, the space agency announced to Jezero Crater as the landing site for the Mars Rover 2020, which will collect samples and store them to return to Earth in the early 2030s. The former lake and river system of the crater is filled with diverse rocks, making it a potential access point for past lives.

Repeat, past life. Not present.

Michael Meyer, chief NASA scientist for the exploration of Mars, said that the Martian surface is very cold and dry, with much radiation bombardment, for life to exist today.

Recorded observations of Mars – about twice the size of the Earth's Moon – date back to ancient Egypt. But it was not until the 19th century that the craze of Mars actually established itself.

Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli began mapping Mars in the 1870s and described the channels observed as "canali" – Italian for channels. But with the recently completed Suez Canal in many minds, "canali" came to be understood as artificial channels and aliens.

Adding to the commotion, the American astronomer behind the Lowell Observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona, Percival Lowell, decided that the canals were carrying water from the poles to intelligent civilizations living near the equator.

Lowell's reflections influenced H.G. Wells, author of "War of the Worlds" in 1898. The 1938 radio broadcast of the science fiction novel terrified many Americans who thought that Martians were actually invading.

Ray Bradbury's classic 1950 novel, "The Martian Chronicles," kept pace with Mars.

Fast-forwarding into the 21st century, SpaceX's founder and science-fiction enthusiast Elon Musk is leading a real charge for Mars. He imagines hundreds of thousands of people flowing to Mars on SpaceX's giant ships and colonizing the red planet to continue the species.

Last week, Musk revealed new names for interplanetary ships and booster rockets: Starship and Super Heavy.

Musk is so in love with Mars that he hopes to die there one day, although he does not emphasize the impact.

While NASA is maintaining its own Mars missions with crews, it has returned its most immediate attention to the moon. An outpost orbiting near the moon could serve as a boarding point for the lunar surface and even Mars, according to officials. It would also serve as a testing ground near astronauts, 100 million miles from Mars.

All observations and reports from NASA's robotic explorers on Mars will help the human pioneers on Mars, according to Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's chief scientist.

That's the charm of Mars, scientists say.

Going to Mars is "a dream," said Philippe Laudet of the French Space Agency, project manager for InSight's seismometer. "Everything is captivating."

For full AP landing coverage on Mars:

The Associated Press's Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Scientific Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


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