1. Landing on Mars is difficult
Only about 40 percent of the missions ever sent to Mars -- by any space agency -- have been successful. The U.S. is the only nation whose missions have survived a Mars landing. The thin atmosphere -- just 1 percent of Earth’s -- means that there’s little friction to slow down a spacecraft. Despite that, NASA has had a long and successful track record at Mars. Since 1965, it has flown by, orbited, landed on and roved across the surface of the Red Planet.
1. MarCO is a pathfinder mission for small spacecraft technology
Two mini-spacecraft called Mars Cube One, or MarCO, have been flying on their own path to Mars behind InSight as a separate NASA technology experiment. MarCO is the first deep space mission for CubeSats, a class of briefcase-sized spacecraft that rely on miniaturized technology.
If the MarCOs make it to Mars, they will attempt to relay data from InSight as it enters the Martian atmosphere and lands. If successful, this could represent a new kind of communication capability to Earth.
2. The MarCOs already have made several big achievements, proving the feasibility of operating tiny spacecraft in deep space for the first time
- The MarCOs have proved this class of spacecraft can survive the deep-space environment, becoming the first CubeSats to provide images of Earth, its moon and Mars along the way.
- They’ve successfully tested several experimental technologies, including their radios, high-gain antennas and propulsion systems.
- They became the first CubeSats to fly to deep space, they performed the first trajectory correction maneuvers by CubeSats, each steering towards Mars.
3. InSight’s success is independent of its CubeSat tag-alongs
InSight and MarCO are separate missions.
The MarCOs were never intended as the primary telecommunications relay for InSight during landing. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter have that primary responsibility.