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story.lead_photo.caption This image provided by NASA, assembled from a series of January 2018 photos made by the Mars Curiosity rover, shows an uphill view of Mount Sharp, which Curiosity had been climbing. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via AP, File)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- In the 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 show how the solar system's rocky planets formed 4½ 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, Calif.

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.

In two years, NASA will actually seek evidence of ancient microbial life on Mars -- if, indeed, it's there.

On 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.

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.

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, Ariz., 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 novel terrified many Americans who thought Martians were actually invading.

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

While NASA is holding out for its own Mars missions with crews, it has turned its 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.

A Section on 11/25/2018

Print Headline: InSight touching down soon to dig into Mars' history

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