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Science & Technology

NASA Launches New Mars Mission


This is Lulu's log, stardate May 6, 2018 where we consider matters of space, the stars and the universe. And today we take a mission to Mars. NASA launched its InSight spacecraft yesterday. And after more than a six-month journey, it will reach the Red Planet. The goal - to understand what's happening below the surface of Mars. Oliver Morton is the author of "Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination And The Birth Of A World." He joins us from London to talk about the new mission. Welcome to the program.

OLIVER MORTON: Nice to be here, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why study Mars's core? What can it teach us?

MORTON: We know the outside of Mars, and we understand the inside of the Earth. And one of the reasons we're interested in Mars is because it's a planet of a similar sort of size to the Earth and Venus. So getting into the interior of it will help us understand how long it took for it to cool down because it's now a cooler planet than the Earth. It no longer does all that exciting plate tectonic stuff that the Earth does. And we'll get a sense of how stiff the external crust is, how malleable the mantle is and whether the core is liquid or not. Those are all the things that really matter for the physics of the Earth, so we assume they're going to matter for the physics of Mars, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The first successful Mars landing was almost 50 years ago, which is quite a while. And many have failed since then. Why? How hard is it actually to get there?

MORTON: It's getting easier. There used to be this myth in the space business that there was a great galactic ghoul which just ate up spacecrafts on their way to Mars. But recently, NASA's been pretty good at landing spacecrafts on Mars. And it landed a spacecraft very like this one on Mars a few years back. It was a spacecraft called Phoenix. So I'm not too worried about the landing here. Also, it's going to a very flat, easy, smooth bit of Mars, which always helps.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What goes into planning a mission like this?

MORTON: Oh, in this case, about 20 years of the lives of many of the people involved. I mean, you're kind to mention my book. I wrote that quite some time ago. The mission that this has grown out of was already being discussed then. I mean, already at that point, people were thinking, we want to do the geophysics of Mars, not just the geology, not just the surface stuff. We want to understand the inside. And I was talking to Bruce Banerdt, who is the principal investigator on this mission, about his plan to put a whole network of seismometers on the surface of Mars.

And, you know, gradually, that network got nibbled down from 20 to 16 to four. And now we're at one, which is the loneliest sort of network. Luckily, the technology improved. So you can now do a lot more with one seismometer than you would have been able to do then. You know, someone once told me, you've got to actually like planning space missions to enjoy a career in this sort of thing because the ones that actually succeed are few and far between.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've also written a book about geoengineering as a way to deal with climate change here on Earth. Do you think people should try and terraform Mars so we can live there? I mean, that is clearly something that has been floating around for a while.

MORTON: I think it's impossible to think about Mars without thinking about this because, you know, the great myth of Mars is a myth of geoengineering. The great myth of Mars is that Mars was once alive and slowly dried out and that the Martians tried to do something about it. So, you know, the idea that the Martians have an environmental problem and want to solve it is fundamental to how the 20th century thought about Mars. And it's been kind of fundamental to how we imagine the future of Mars. It's very hard to imagine a human future on Mars as it is, but one thing that matters a great deal is - although I think that it's quite unlikely that there's any extant life on Mars, that's something you really want to have a very good handle on before you even start thinking about terraforming it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oliver Morton is the author of "Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination And The Birth Of A World." And he's an editor at The Economist. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MORTON: It was a pleasure, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOLIFE'S "ISM" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.