Friday, June 12, 2015

CubeSats to Hitch a Ride to Mars on NASA’s InSight Mission

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. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Tiny satellites have their needs for interplanetary journeys too. In 2016, two communications-relay CubeSats will piggyback aboard ULA’s Atlas V rocket, which will launch NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission to Mars, and become fully-fledged space explorers. It will be the first time CubeSats have flown into deep space. The small-sized satellites, being built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, will separate from the Atlas V launch vehicle after lift-off and travel along their own trajectories to Mars. The CubeSats will be navigated to the Red Planet independently of the InSight mission, with its own course adjustments on the way.

The basic CubeSat unit is a box roughly 4 inches (10 centimeters) square. The satellites will include a technology demonstration called Mars Cube One (MarCO). MarCO will be equipped with two deployable solar arrays, a deployable X-band antenna and an 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 InSight’s entry, descent and landing (EDL) 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 landed missions. 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 seek to understand 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.

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