NASA to deploy first interplanetary CubeSats for next Mars mission

Washington: NASA’s next Mars landing mission in 2016 will include two CubeSats, the first time tiny satellites will be flown in deep space.

If this flyby demonstration is successful, 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 (JPL), Pasadena, California, constitute a technology demonstration called Mars Cube One (MarCO).

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 to understand 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, adding that MarCO will fly independently to Mars.

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. 

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