Spaceflight Insider

MarCO! CubeSats set to support NASA InSight mission

MarCO satellite in orbit above the planet Mars NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Artist’s depiction of twin MarCO satellites in orbit above the planet Mars. The duo will be fielded when the InSight mission is sent to the Red Planet. Image Credit: NASA

Athough NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission may not pack the public relations appeal of its larger ­and more mobile ­Martian siblings, the lander, however, will be supported by its own pair of communication satellites to aid in relaying information during the “entry, descent, and landing” (EDL) phase of its mission.

Currently scheduled to launch in early May of 2018, the mission will deploy the two briefcase-­sized CubeSats, called Mars Cube One (MarCO), while on its way to the Red Planet. Each will operate separately from InSight and are designed to fill a communication gap during one of the most critical parts of the mission.

InSight is nominally dependent upon the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) for Mars-­to-­Earth communications; however, mission designers hope MarCO can mitigate the one-hour communication delay caused by MRO’s inability to simultaneously receive and transmit data on disparate frequencies. The twin satellites each have the capability to instantly relay EDL operations to Earth in real time. This should be the first time CubeSats have been deployed in deep space.

The MarCO satellites are each “6U CubeSat” size in a 2 × 3 configuration (1U is a cube roughly 4 inches (10 cm) per side), with a stowed size of 14.4 by 9.5 by 4.6 inches (36.6 cm × 24.1 cm × 11.7 cm). Upon release, each satellite will need to immediately deploy its array of antennas and solar panels. Though small, each MarCO unit will make use of an innovative flat­ panel high-gain antenna designed to mimic the operation of a much larger parabolic reflector.

Should either, or both, of the satellites fail to operate as intended, there would be no significant impact on InSight operations.

“MarCO is an experimental capability that has been added to the InSight mission, but is not needed for mission success, and will operate independently from the lander, with each capable of performing their own course corrections in ­transit,” said Dr. Jim Green, the director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

Indeed, both satellites will only spend a small part of their operational lifetime in support of the InSight mission. Not being designed with thrusters capable of decelerating the craft and achieving orbit, both craft will, instead, fly­by Mars on a trajectory out of the planetary system. If successful, NASA hopes to prove the viability of bringing along a dedicated communication relay for the important EDL phase of Mars missions.

Video Courtesy of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory


Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.

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