Tech: NASA is dropping a solar-powered lander onto Mars today — here's what InSight will do on the red planet

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In January 2018, workers extended the solar arrays that will power the InSight spacecraft once it lands on Mars.

NASA's Mars InSight Lander blasted off in May. Today, the robot is set to hit martian soil. Once on the ground, InSight will investigate Marsquakes.

NASA is about to put a solar-powered lander on Mars.

The robot is named InSight (which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport). The 794-pound laboratory is set to hit Martian soil on Monday, after six months of whizzing through space.

Assuming the landing is successful, InSight will pursue three main goals on Mars: taking the planet's temperature, measuring its size, and monitoring for Mars quakes. Scientists at NASA say this work is kind of like giving the red planet a "checkup."

Here's what the roughly $828 million mission could accomplish.

It took about six months for the InSight lander to travel 301 million miles from southern California to Mars.

NASA launched InSight from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 5.

InSight was hoisted aboard an Atlas V rocket along with a couple of tiny, toaster-sized cube satellites that flew to Mars as well. They're called MarsCubeOne, and they'll help relay InSight landing data back to Earth.

The rocket weighed about 730,000 pounds once it was ready for blastoff (including the fuel and payload).

Source: NASA

If everything goes according to plan, InSight will land on Mars at approximately 2:54 p.m. ET this afternoon.

Source: Business Insider

The last minutes of its journey to the Martian atmosphere will be the trickiest. The lander must slow down from around 12,500 miles per hour to 5 miles per hour in just seven minutes.

InSight will use a parachute and fire off thrusters to help itself slow down as it approaches the red planet. The legs of the machine also function as shock absorbers.

Once InSight has touched down safely on Martian ground, it'll get to work examining the rocky surface of Mars. InSight scientists hope the lander will give them a better understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed.

InSight will land in a spot on Mars called "Elysium Planitia," which is relatively flat and close to the Martian equator.

The roughly 20-foot-long lander won't move around on Mars like a rover. Instead, it's more like an unmanned research station.

InSight is equipped with a suite of sensitive instruments to gather data. Those tools "require a spacecraft that sits still and carefully places its instruments on the Martian surface," according to NASA.

InSight will drill a heat probe up to 16 feet deep into the Martian soil. The process will take about two months.

NASA calls the device "a self-hammering heat probe."

The heat probe will check the temperature below the surface of Mars, giving scientists information about how much heat comes out of the red planet for the first time.

InSight will also be on the lookout for Mars quakes.

If Earth has earthquakes, then Mars must have quakes, too. But quakes on Mars are more mysterious than earthquakes, which are usually caused by shifts in Earth's tectonic plates.

Scientists think Mars quakes could be caused by other types of tectonic activity, like volcanism, cracks in the planet's crust, or even meteorite impacts.

Scientists expect to observe dozens if not hundreds of quakes during the time that InSight sits on Mars.

NASA tried studying Mars quakes once before with its Viking landers in the late 1970s. But their instruments sat on top of the landers and often swayed in the wind.

"I joke that we didn't do seismology on Mars, we did it three feet above Mars," Bruce Banerdt, InSight's principal investigator, said.

The lander will use this roughly 7-foot-long robotic arm to put the Mars quake detector (seismometer) and the heat probe onto the ground.

A third important instrument on InSight is a pair of antennas and a radio transmitter that will record how much the planet shakes and wobbles as it orbits.

That data will help scientists learn more about Mars' iron-rich core; they hope to find out how big the core is and whether it's liquid or solid.

NASA undertook a similar mission to examine Mars about 10 years ago. The Phoenix lander arrived on the red planet in 2008.

Phoenix wasn't designed to withstand the dark and frigid Martian winter — it lasted for only five months before it ran out of sunlight. But InSight is ready for the cold, even temperatures hundreds of degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

InSight will spend more than one Mars year completing its investigation. That's equivalent to two Earth years, minus a couple of days.

On Mars, days are measured as Sols. InSight will stay for 708 of those Mars days, but in Earth terms it'll be there for 728 days.

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