MarCO CubeSats perform successfully during InSight landing
Two tiny CubeSats that traveled with NASA’s InSight lander on its way to Mars successfully monitored the probe’s entry, descent, and landing on the Red Planet and returned data to Earth hours before NASA’s Mars orbiters came into position to transmit the information.
Mars Cube One (MarCO) is an experimental project involving two briefcase-sized satellites, nicknamed MarCO-A and MarCo-B, or “EVE” and “WALL-E” respectively, after two robot protagonists in the 2008 Pixar film “WALL-E.” Because CubeSats could one day explore deep space and even planets in other star systems, scientists paired them with InSight to determine whether they could survive a deep space journey.
Both survived the seven-month trip from Earth to Mars and returned data on InSight‘s landing process to mission engineers in only eight minutes, the time it takes for radio signals traveling at the universal speed of light to travel between the two planets.
Although the tiny satellites did not carry any science instruments, MarCO-B captured images of the Red Planet from a distance of just 4,700 miles (7,600 km) on approach. It also imaged Mars’s two small moons, Deimos and Phobos, and took a farewell shot of the Red Planet following the landing.
MarCO-A transmitted radio signals through the Martian atmosphere in an effort to help scientists measure the amount of atmosphere the planet along with the atmosphere’s composition. This method works because interference from Mars’s atmosphere alters the signals before they arrive back on Earth.
“WALL-E and EVE performed just as we expected them to. They were an excellent test of how CubeSats can serve as ‘tag-alongs’ on future missions, giving engineers up-to-the-minute feedback during a landing,” emphasized MarCO chief engineer Andy Klesh of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which built the CubeSats.
Because they recorded the actual landing, both MarCOs would have provided useful feedback to mission engineers, much like that provided by an airplane’s black box, had the landing failed. Data from the recording would have proven useful in helping engineers develop better landing technology for future missions.
“CubeSats have incredible potential to carry cameras and science instruments out to deep space,” said JPL program manager for small spacecraft John Baker, who described them as “low-cost ride-alongs that can allow us to explore in new ways.”
NASA’s Mars orbiters were not positioned to image the entire InSight landing and could not transmit information back to Earth until they entered the proper positions for data transmission.
Over the next few weeks, members of the MarCO team will determine the amount of fuel left in each CubeSat and further analyze both MarCOs’ performances.
The two CubeSats do not have sufficient fuel to enter Martian orbit. Instead, they will remain in orbit around the Sun and may be used to study one or more asteroids.
Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.
Now let’s see if NASA does the smart thing and utilizes these CubeSats on future missions or if they reengineer them for every mission.