NASA’s next mission to Mars -- InSight -- will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California as early as May 5, 2018. It is expected to land on the Red Planet on Nov. 26, 2018. InSight is a mission to Mars, but it is more than a Mars mission. It will help scientists understand the formation and early evolution of all rocky planets, including Earth.

A technology demonstration called Mars Cube One (MarCO) will share the launch with InSight and fly separately to Mars.

InSight Lander Artist Concept

Six Ways InSight Is Different

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?

Illustration of Mars core.

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.

2. InSight will teach us about the interior of planets like our own

InSight's team hopes that by studying the deep interior of Mars, we can learn how other rocky worlds, including Earth and the Moon, formed. Our home planet and Mars were molded from the same primordial stuff more than 4.5 billion years ago, but then became quite different. Why didn’t they share the same fate?

When it comes to rocky planets, we’ve only studied one in detail: Earth. By comparing Earth's interior to that of Mars, InSight's team members hope hopes to better understand our solar system. What they learn might even aid the search for Earth-like exoplanets, narrowing down which ones might be able to support life. So while InSight is a Mars mission, it’s also much more than a Mars mission.

Artist's concept of Earth's rocky core.
Artist's concept of seismic graph overlayed on Mars.

3. InSight will try to detect marsquakes for the first time

One key way InSight will peer into the Martian interior is by studying motion underground -- what we know as marsquakes. NASA hasn't attempted to do this kind of science since the Viking mission. Both Viking landers had their seismometers on top of the spacecraft, where they produced noisy data. InSight’s seismometer will be placed directly on the Martian surface, which will provide much cleaner data.

Scientists have seen a lot of evidence suggesting Mars has quakes. But unlike quakes on Earth, which are mostly caused by tectonic plates moving around, marsquakes would be caused by other types of tectonic activity, such as volcanism and cracks forming in the planet's crust. In addition, meteor impacts can create seismic waves, which InSight will try to detect.

Each marsquake would be like a flashbulb that illuminates the structure of the planet’s interior. By studying how seismic waves pass through the different layers of the planet (the crust, mantle and core), scientists can deduce the depths of these layers and what they're made of. In this way, seismology is like taking an X-ray of the interior of Mars.

Scientists think it's likely they'll see between a dozen and a hundred marsquakes over the course of two Earth years. The quakes are likely to be no bigger than a 6.0 on the Richter scale, which would be plenty of energy for revealing secrets about the planet’s interior.

4. First interplanetary launch from the West Coast

All of NASA's interplanetary launches to date have been from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in part because the physics of launching off the East Coast are better for journeys to other planets. But InSight will break the mold by launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Central California. It will be the first launch to another planet from the West Coast.

InSight will ride on top of a powerful Atlas V 401 rocket, which allows for a planetary trajectory to Mars from either coast. Vandenberg was ultimately chosen because it had more availability during InSight's launch period.

A whole new region will get to see an interplanetary launch when InSight rockets into the sky. In a clear, pre-dawn sky, the launch may be visible in California from Santa Maria to San Diego.

Photo of a rocket sitting on the launchpad preparing for launch.
Mars in false color revealing Tharsis Montes area of volcanic activity.

5. InSight could teach us how Martian volcanoes were formed

Mars is home to some impressive volcanic features. That includes Tharsis -- a plateau with some of the biggest volcanoes in the solar system. Heat escaping from deep within the planet drives the formation of these types of features, as well as many others on rocky planets. InSight includes a self-hammering heat probe that will burrow up to 16 feet (5 meters) into the Martian soil to measure the heat flow from the planet’s interior for the first time. Combining the rate of heat flow with other InSight data will reveal how energy within the planet drives changes on the surface.

6. Mars is a time machine

Studying Mars lets us travel to the ancient past. While Earth and Venus have tectonic systems that have destroyed most of the evidence of their early history, much of the Red Planet has remained static for more than 3 billion years. Because Mars is just one-third the size of Earth and Venus, it contains less energy to power the processes that change a planet's structure. That makes it a fossil planet in many ways, with the secrets of our solar system's early history locked deep inside.

Image of Mars taken from orbiter.

What Makes Mars Cube One Different

Artist's concept of two cubesats orbiting Mars.

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.