First CubeSats Planned for Mars

Nanosatellites may go into deep space for the first time

2 min read
First CubeSats Planned for Mars
Illustration: JPL-Caltech/NASA

The first interplanetary CubeSats—satellites based on cubes just 10 centimeters wide—will be deployed during the next mission that NASA sends to Mars, the agency says.

CubeSats, whose dimensions are based on the size of a Beanie Baby box one of their inventors found in a shop, are one of the cheapest, most efficient ways to get communications networks into space. Weighing in at just 1 to 10 kilograms, these "nanosatellites" usually pack little more than solar panels, communications equipment, and a few scientific instruments. But now researchers are developing tiny propulsion systems for CubeSats to help them orient themselves, maneuver, and even rocket to new orbits.

Dozens of CubeSats have been launched into Earth orbit over the years; they usually piggyback on rockets taking up larger spacecraft. Now NASA is planning to fly two CubeSats into deep space for the first time, launching them with InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), NASA's first mission to understand the interior structure of Mars.

The Mars Cube One (MarCO) mission under development at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California consists of twin communications relays. Each 36.6-by-24.3-by-11.8-cm unit is.roughly as big as six basic CubeSats—or about the size of a briefcase.

NASA’s plans call for MarCO to be launched on the same United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that will lift NASA's InSight lander from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California next March. The pair of satellites will separate from the booster rocket after launch and travel along their own trajectories to Mars, making independent course adjustments on the way.

InSight will transmit data in the UHF radio band. MarCO's softball-sized radio can receive UHF signals and transmit and receive in the X band. Without MarCO, data from InSight relayed via the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter would be delayed by hours, since the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter cannot simultaneously receive information on one band while transmitting on another.

The agency hopes that the twin nanosatellites will help transmit status updates about InSight to Earth in real time as the stationary craft lands on Mars in September 2016. If MarCO succeeds, CubeSats may become common on interplanetary missions, the agency says.

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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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