NASA has a long and successful track record at Mars. Since 1965, it has flown by, orbited, landed and roved across the surface of the Red Planet.
None of that has been easy. Only about 40 percent of the missions ever sent to Mars by any space agency have been successful. The planet’s thin atmosphere makes landing a challenge; its extreme temperature swings make it difficult to operate on the surface. But if a spacecraft survives the trip, there’s a bounty of science to be collected. What can InSight, which is led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, do that hasn’t been done before?
1. InSight is the first mission to study the deep interior of Mars
A dictionary definition of "insight" is to see the inner nature of something. InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) will do just that. InSight will take the "vital signs" of Mars: its pulse (seismology), temperature (heat flow), and its reflexes (radio science). It will be the first thorough check-up since the planet formed 4.5 billion years ago.
MarCO is the first CubeSat mission to deep space
The rocket that will loft InSight beyond Earth will also launch a separate NASA technology experiment: two mini-spacecraft called Mars Cube One, or MarCO. These briefcase-sized CubeSats will fly on their own path to Mars behind InSight.
Their goal is to test new miniaturized deep space communication equipment and, if the MarCOs make it to Mars, may relay back InSight data as it enters the Martian atmosphere and lands. This will be a first test of miniaturized CubeSat technology at another planet, which researchers hope can offer new capabilities to future missions.
If successful, the MarCOs could represent a new kind of communication capability to Earth. InSight’s success is independent of its CubeSat tag-alongs.