Mars InSight mission: What Nasa's trip to Red Planet aims to discover

The first image of the surface of Mars from InSight with dust specks covering the lens from the landing

Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are preparing for the spacecraft to enter the Martian atmosphere, descend with a parachute and retrorockets, and touch down today at around 3 p.m. EST (12 p.m. PST, 8 p.m. GMT). Atmospheric drag will dissipate about 90 percent of the lander's considerable kinetic energy, but that won't be enough; InSight will slow itself further with the aid of a supersonic parachute, and then thrusters. Once slowed, it will jettison its heat shield and then its landing legs will unfold and lock into place. It is created to carry out its mission from a stationary position, and it is expected to land and set up shop in an area known as the Elysium Planitia, which JPL officials dubbed "the biggest parking lot on Mars", providing a flat solid surface for the craft to do its work.

InSight's landing was carefully choreographed.

"If you were a Martian coming to explore Earth's interior like we are exploring Mars's interior, it wouldn't matter if you put down in the middle of Kansas or the beaches of Oahu", Bruce Banerdt, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

For all the background you could want or need on InSight, watch Claire Reilly's preview below and read my breakdown of the mission's goals here. The spacecraft is expected to land at 3 pm EST.

A diagram of NASA's InSight Mars lander and its science instruments to look inside the Red Planet.

The InSight lander aimed for a touchdown Monday afternoon, as anxiety built among those involved in the $1 billion global effort. NASA will use radio telescopes in Green Bank, West Virginia and also in Germany to listen out for radio signals from InSight.

It was NASA's - indeed, humanity's - eighth successful landing at Mars since the 1976 Viking probes, and the first in six years.

InSight will be travelling at 12,300 miles per hour when it makes initial contact with the atmosphere at an angle of precisely 12 degrees.

A rendering of the In Sight streaking through Mars' atmosphere
NASA JPL-CALTECHA rendering of the In Sight streaking through Mars' atmosphere

A NASA spacecraft is just a few hours away from landing on Mars. The entire landing will have already taken place - and succeeded or failed - before we even know it has begun.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V rocket carried NASA's InSight spacecraft, bound for Mars, when it launched in May.

The seismometer "is really the heart of the InSight mission", Banerdt said.

It's projected that it will take them about two weeks to test InSight's systems and its actuator arm, before they send the commands for the transfer of SEIS from the lander deck to the ground.

This is the reason NASA scientists have picked Elysium Planitia as the place to land the InSight.

You may be wondering if InSight will meet native forms of life during its stay on Mars; alas, that question will remain unanswered. Together, those instruments will take measurements of Mars' vital signs, like its pulse, temperature and reflexes - which translates to internal activity like seismology and the planet's wobble as the sun and its moons tug on Mars. By carefully analyzing slight changes in the radio signals from the spacecraft as Mars rotates on its axis and sweeps along its orbit, scientists can precisely locate the martian polar axis and measure how it slowly changes orientation. "Once InSight is settled on the Red Planet and its instruments are deployed, it will start collecting valuable information about the structure of Mars' deep interior - information that will help us understand the formation and evolution of all rocky planets, including the one we call home".

"Landing on Mars is exciting, but scientists are looking forward to the time after InSight lands", said Glaze.

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