New Antennas Will Take CubeSats to Mars and Beyond

By packing big antennas into tiny satellites, JPL engineers are making space science cheap

9 min read
Illustration: John MacNeill
Illustration: John MacNeill

One morning in November 2014, Kamal Oudrhiri, a colleague of mine at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, Calif., burst into my office with an intriguing proposition. A first-of-its-kind satellite was headed for Mars. The satellite would fly alongside NASA’s InSight Mars Lander, relaying data in real time back to Earth during the lander’s critical entry, descent, and landing. “We have to achieve 8 kilobits per second, and we’re limited in terms of power. Our only hope is a large antenna,” Oudrhiri explained. “Oh, and the satellite itself will be only about the size of a briefcase.”

Nothing as diminutive as the Mars satellite—which belongs to a class called CubeSats—had ever gone farther than low Earth orbit. The antenna would be stowed during launch, occupying only about 830 cubic centimeters. Shortly thereafter, it would unfurl to a size three times as large as the satellite itself. It would have to survive the 160-million-kilometer flight to the Red Planet, including the intense vibration of launch and the radiation and extreme temperatures of deep space. How hard could that be?

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