Administration bets big on tiny satellites.
According to statements made yesterday, NASA is looking to put two CubeSats on Mars. The plan is to have the two nanosatellites piggyback on an Atlas V booster and join NASA’s InSight mission, which seeks to study the interior of Mars using a geophysical lander. The idea to take two CubeSats along for the ride is part of a larger move NASA is making towards more widespread use of the tiny satellites. Towards that end, the administration also has filed a request for proposals meant to promote a commercial launch industry dedicated to CubeSats.
What are CubeSats?
CubeSats are very small, modular, cube-shaped satellites. Each side is 10 centimeters (4 inches) long, and the cubes can weigh up to 1.33 kilograms (3 pounds). They are typically launched aboard larger spacecraft carrying multiple payloads, and feature a spring-loaded mechanism that allows them to separate from the spacecraft. Thanks to their handy size (as well as the availability of decommissioned Russian rockets), CubeSats are currently cheap to launch, at about $40,000 per cube. They have been used for research in the past, though their destination is usually lower Earth orbit.
Why bring CubeSats to Mars?
The CubeSat nanosatellites that will be sent to Mars with the InSight Lander are specifically designed for the mission. The nanosatellites, called MarCO (Mars Cube One) feature two radio antennae and two solar panels, allowing them to quickly relay information about the landing to Earth. If, for whatever reason, the cubes fail, the team can still fall back on the InSight lander to communicate with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) overhead, which in turn would beam the information to Earth. The only downside would be a delay of over an hour as the MRO transmits the information. So, while NASA hopes to use the CubeSats to eliminate a nail-biting delay, no major catastrophe would come of their failure. Scientists have high hopes that this mission will help us better understand the processes behind planet formation, so it’s a relief to see backup communications in place. If the CubeSats work as planned, though, NASA will likely have more “bring-your-own” communications equipment in future Mars missions.