NASA’s next flight to Mars will mark the first time CubeSats have ever journeyed beyond Earth’s orbit to a different planet!
This mission will involve two CubeSats that have been designed and built by the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) based in Pasadena, California. The identical CubeSats have been dubbed Mars Cube One (MarCO) A and B and will be launched in conjunction with a Mars lander called InSight, and they will all go into space on the same rocket. Both satellites are no bigger than briefcases and are equipped with solar wings and high gain antennas.
A model of the Mars Cube One (to scale) held by mechanical engineer Joel Steinkraus and systems engineer Farah Alibay. Credit: NASA/JPL
InSight’s mission will be to land on Mars and investigate its deep interior to discover how the planet formed and evolved. The two Cubesats won’t be taking any part in this mission, but their objective is of notable value. The two spacecraft will separate from the rocket after the InSight lander separates from it, and then they will fly by Mars. One of them (the other CubeSat serves as a backup) will monitor the lander as it enters Mars’ atmosphere and touches down on the surface. Then it will relay that data back to Earth.
An artist’s rendering how of the 2 CubeSats will look when they fly past Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL
It is NASA’s hope that through observing the InSight’s landing on Mars, they can learn how to land spacecraft on the surface of hostile planets more safely. MarCo A and B will also be an important milestone for microsatellites to take part in an interplanetary mission, as they’re traditionally restricted to low-Earth orbit (LEO), it could pave the way for more missions in which CubeSats delve deep into space.
The InSight is set to launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base at California on May 5, 2018. In the mean time, you can stay up to date with the mission on its Twitter page!