NASA announced that the Mars bound InSight lander will be accompanied by two CubeSats as an experimental data relay addition.
The CubeSats are titled Mars Cubes, thus the shortened name MarCo. The technology has been around for years, but most CubeSats have only been deployed in the Earth’s orbit during the past 15 years. The MarCo will establish the first time CubeSats have been deployed in deep space.
If successful, their mission will set the ground for additional invaluable information relayed in real-time.
The mission of the two MarCo satellites will begin in March 2016, at the same time with NASA’s InSight Mars-bound lander. The twin CubeSats will be launched with the Atlas V rocket and are set to relay all signals from the InSight lander while it begins its descending through Mars’s atmosphere.
The added mission of the MarCo sats cost NASA an extra 13 million dollars. Nonetheless, it is not instrumental to the success of InSight mission.
The two CubeSats are reported to measure 14.4×9.5×4.6 inches in the closed position ready for launching and they have been designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Their basic design is built upon the six-unit CubeSat, to which additional units are added according to the needs of a mission.
The MarCo sats are featuring additional units that allow them to also detect any seismic activity on Mars, as well as study the red planet’s interior.
According to supervisors of the mission:
“The MarCo spacecraft will launch with InSight in March of 2017. Upon reaching orbit, just after InSight separation, the MarCo spacecraft will deploy from the Centaur upper stage, and then will begin their transit for a flyby at Mars.”
InSight and MarCo are set to launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The two CubeSats are capable of tine-tuning their flight course toward the red planet and are powered by pressurized cold gas. A total of eight thrusters are responsible for course adjusting, another four being responsible for orientation control.
In addition to cold gas propulsion, the MarCo twin mission is featuring solar panels that will unfurl to generate electricity.
At the same time, for accurate real-time communication, the CubeSats are equiped with a UHF receiver antenna, as well as a X-band reflector panel.
This way, the MarCo are able to communicate timely with both InSight and Earth stations. To this extent, they will greatly aid in information relaying that escaped the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery planetary projects, and will mark the 12th mission of the sort.
Come March 4th, 2016 the launch window for InSight and MarCo opens for a period of 27 days.
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