Two unique tag-along devices will be launched along with the rocket carrying the next National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Mars mission, it was announced Friday.
The 2016 flight to the red planet will include twin groundbreaking CubeSats, a form of small spacecraft based on a standardised size and modular use of off-the-shelf technologies.
The two communications-relay CubeSats, currently being built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), comprise a technology demonstration project named Mars Cube One (MarCO). MarCO’s launch is palnned for March 2016, on the same United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket as NASA’s InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) lander.
MarCO will fly by Mars, and InSight, NASA’s first mission to understand the interior structure of the Red Planet, is projected to land on Mars in September 2016.
MarCO will fly independently to Mars, said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division: “MarCO is an experimental capability that has been added to the InSight mission, but is not needed for mission success.”
Various similar CubeSats have been created by university students and dozens have been launched into Earth orbit using extra payload mass available on launches of larger spacecraft. A CubeSat (also known as U-class spacecraft) usually has a volume of exactly one liter (10 cm cube), and has a mass of no more than 1.33 kilograms.
CubeSats use solar cells to convert solar light to electricity that is then stored in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that provide power during eclipse as well as during peak load times.
After it’s release from the launch vehicle, MarCO’s first tasks will be to deploy two radio antennas and two solar panels.
If the MarCO demonstration mission succeeds, Eventually 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.