Mars Cube One: new deep-space CubeSats will travel to Mars along with InSight lander

Artist’s conception of the MarCO CubeSats flying past Mars as the InSight lander descends to the surface. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of the MarCO CubeSats flying past Mars as the InSight lander descends to the surface. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The next NASA mission to Mars, the InSight lander, will include some additional experimental technology: the first deep-space CubeSats. Two small CubeSats will fly past the planet as the lander is descending through the atmosphere; this will be the first time CubeSats have been used in an interplanetary mission.

If all goes well, the technology will provide NASA with a new way to quickly transmit status information about the main spacecraft after it lands on Mars. The twin CubeSats will be known together as Mars Cube One (MarCO), and are being built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

CubeSats are basically smaller versions of traditional satellites, using off-the-shelf technologies. Dozens have already been launched into Earth orbit and many have been designed by university students. A basic CubeSat is a box roughly 4 inches (10 centimeters) square, with larger CubeSats being multiples of that unit. MarCO’s design is a six-unit CubeSat—about the size of a briefcase – with a stowed size of about 36.6 centimetres (14.4 inches) by 24.3 centimetres (9.5 inches) by 11.8 centimetres (4.6 inches).

A full-scale mockup of MarCO, held by Farah Alibay, a systems engineer for the technology demonstration. A one-half-scale model of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is behind her. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A full-scale mockup of MarCO, held by Farah Alibay, a systems engineer for the technology demonstration. A one-half-scale model of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is behind her. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

MarCO will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on the same United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket as the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander, in March 2016. After launch, the two CubeSats will separate from the Atlas V booster and travel independently to Mars. They will then deploy two radio antennas and two solar panels. The high-gain, X-band antenna will direct radio waves the same way that a parabolic dish antenna does.

“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.”

While InSight is descending through the Martian atmosphere on Sep. 28, 2016, it will also relay information in the UHF radio band to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which will then forward it back to Earth. One downside, however, is that MRO cannot simultaneously receive information over one band while transmitting on another, which means that confirmation of a successful landing might be received by the orbiter an hour before it is transmitted to Earth. MarCO could nicely solve that problem, as its softball-sized radio provides both UHF (receive only) and X-band (receive and transmit) functions capable of immediately relaying information received over UHF.

As previously reported, NASA has already started testing of the InSight lander at the Lockheed Martin Space Systems facility near Denver, Colo.

According to Stu Spath, InSight program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver: “The assembly of InSight went very well and now it’s time to see how it performs. The environmental testing regimen is designed to wring out any issues with the spacecraft so we can resolve them while it’s here on Earth. This phase takes nearly as long as assembly, but we want to make sure we deliver a vehicle to NASA that will perform as expected in extreme environments.”

“It’s great to see the spacecraft put together in its launch configuration,” said InSight Project Manager Tom Hoffman at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “Many teams from across the globe have worked long hours to get their elements of the system delivered for these tests. There still remains much work to do before we are ready for launch, but it is fantastic to get to this critical milestone.”

Future versions of MarsCO could be used as a “bring-your-own” communications relay option for use by future Mars missions in the critical few minutes between Martian atmospheric entry and touchdown. They might even be used later for other planetary missions, and could be incorporated into newer mission technologies such as LightSail, which just this week successfully completed a low-Earth orbit test of deploying its solar sails, despite a few glitches. LightSail itself is a CubeSat spacecraft which is designed to use solar sailing technology, using energy from the Sun as propulsion, as a means of traveling through the Solar System. Such missions could be a reliable yet less expensive way to explore the outer Solar System as apposed to conventional rockets.

CubeSats, smaller versions of traditional satellites, are being increasingly used in Earth orbit and will now head for Mars as well. Photo Credit: Montana State University/Space Science and Engineering Laboratory
CubeSats, smaller versions of traditional satellites, are being increasingly used in Earth orbit and will now head for Mars as well. Photo Credit: Montana State University/Space Science and Engineering Laboratory

In related Mars news, the newest Mars orbiter, MAVEN, recently took ultraviolet images of auroras in the Martian atmosphere.

“It really is amazing,” said Nick Schneider who leads MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument team at the University of Colorado. “Auroras on Mars appear to be more wide-ranging than we ever imagined.” Known as “Christmas lights” by researchers, the auroras “circled the globe and descended so close to the Martian equator that, if the lights had occurred on Earth, they would have been over places like Florida and Texas.”

Instead of a global magnetic field like Earth has, Mars’ disjointed magnetic fields sprout out of the ground like mushrooms, mostly in the southern hemisphere. They are thought to be the remains of a global magnetic field which did exist previously but has long since mostly decayed.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter had also recently detected impact glass on Mars for the first time, which may also offer additional clues to the possibility of past life. On Earth, impact glass has been found to contain organic material from previously living microbes and even bits of plants.

Both of the Mars rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, as well as the orbiters, are currently still waiting out the Mars solar conjunction, where Mars passes almost directly behind the Sun from Earth’s perspective, temporarily cutting off communications with rovers and orbiters (this time from June 7 to June 21). Curiosity is sitting in Marias Pass and Opportunity at the entrance to Marathon Valley while they wait for the conjunction period to end. Curiosity also recently received an upgrade to its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument, which provides information about the chemical composition of targets by zapping them with laser pulses and taking spectrometer readings of the induced sparks, as well as taking detailed images through a telescope.

More information about MarCO is available here and the InSight mission here.

This article was first published on AmericaSpace.

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