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CubeSats to hitch a ride to Mars on NASA’s InSight mission

Depiction of two small MarCO CubeSats orbiting Mars.

NASA's two small MarCO CubeSats will be flying past Mars in 2016 just as NASA's next Mars lander, InSight, is descending through the Martian atmosphere and landing on the surface. MarCO, for Mars Cube One, will provide an experimental communications relay to inform Earth quickly about the landing. Image & Caption Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

When it comes to interplanetary missions, tiny spacecraft also have their uses. In 2016, two communications-relay CubeSats are scheduled to piggyback aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA ) Atlas V rocket, which will be used to send NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight ) mission to Mars. In so doing, the small satellites will become full-fledged space explorers in their own right. This mission should mark the first time that CubeSats are sent on a deep space mission.

The small-sized satellites, built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, will separate from the Atlas V launch vehicle and travel along their own trajectories to the Red Planet. The CubeSats will be navigated to Mars independently of the InSight mission, making their own course adjustments on the way.

Artist's rendering of Atlas V upper stage launching into space with InSight and MarCO payload

Artist’s rendering of Atlas V upper stage launching into space with InSight and MarCO payload. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The basic CubeSat unit consists of a box roughly 4 inches (10 centimeters) square. The satellites will include a technology demonstration component called Mars Cube One (MarCO ). MarCO will be equipped with two solar arrays, a deployable X-band antenna, and a UHF antenna. These provide an 8 kbps UHF link from InSight to MarCO and an 8 kbps X-band link: MarCO to the Deep Space Network (DSN).

MarCO is a six-unit CubeSat, with a stowed size of about 14.4 inches (36.6 centimeters) by 9.5 inches (24.3 centimeters) by 4.6 inches (11.8 centimeters). It will provide a real-time data relay. If it succeeds, it could allow for a “bring-your-own” communications relay option for use by future Mars missions in the critical few minutes between Martian atmospheric entry and touchdown.

During the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase of InSight’s operations in 2016, the spacecraft will transmit information in the UHF radio band to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) flying overhead.

MRO will forward EDL information to Earth using a radio frequency in the X band, but cannot simultaneously receive information over one band while transmitting on another. Confirmation of a successful landing could be received by the orbiter more than an hour before it’s relayed to Earth.

“MarCO is an experimental capability that has been added to the InSight mission, but is not needed for mission success,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “MarCO will fly independently to Mars.”

NASA believes that the CubeSats mission to Mars in 2016 will pave the way for future small spacecraft and reduce risk to future missions that will utilize a lander.

Engineers holding a mockup of the MarCO Cubesat

Engineers holding a mockup of the MarCO Cubesat. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This technology could open a window for new science opportunities, leading to many other applications to explore and study the Solar System.

JPL manages MarCO, InSight, and MRO for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

InSight is a NASA Discovery Program mission to be launched in March 2016. It will place a single geophysical lander on Mars to study its deep interior. The mission will work to provide a better understanding of the evolutionary formation of rocky planets, including Earth, by investigating the interior structure and processes of Mars. InSight will also investigate the dynamics of Martian tectonic activity and meteorite impacts, which could offer clues about such phenomena on Earth.

Video courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory


Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

Reader Comments

This will be a great demo of the usefulness of CubeSat and other miniature satellite technology on planetary missions. Hopefully it will work out well so that the same technology can be used in other missions such as to Europa or elsewhere. Of course, the use of miniaturized satellite technology on such missions is not new. America’s first successful lunar mission, Pioneer 4 launched in March 1959, had a mass of only six kilograms (just a touch more massive than a “4U” CubeSat) and was able to make observations of radiation in cislunar space as well a perform a technology demo during a distant flyby of the Moon on its way into solar orbit.

Imagine what can be done with today’s technology!

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