NASA will launch two interplanetary cubesats in 2016
When NASA launches its next mission on the journey to Mars - a stationary lander in 2016 - the flight will include two CubeSats. This will be the first time CubeSats have flown in deep space. The technology will provide NASA the ability to quickly transmit status information about the main spacecraft after it lands on Mars.
The twin communications-relay CubeSats, being built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, constitute a technology demonstration called Mars Cube One (MarCO). CubeSats are a class of spacecraft based on a standardized small size and modular use of off-the-shelf technologies. Many have been made by university students, and dozens have been launched into Earth orbit using extra payload mass available on launches of larger spacecraft.
MarCO will launch in March 2016 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, on the same United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket as NASA's Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander. InSight is NASA's first mission devoted to understanding the interior structure of the Red Planet. MarCO will fly by Mars while InSight is landing, in September 2016.
"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."
During InSight's entry, descent and landing (EDL) operations on Sept. 28, 2016, the lander 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.
Ultimately, if the MarCO demonstration mission 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. By verifying CubeSats are a viable technology for interplanetary missions, and feasible on a short development timeline, this technology demonstration could lead to many other applications to explore and study our solar system.