NASA launched its next Mars mission with a stationary lander InSight and for the first time carrying a payload of two CubeSats.
InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), the first mission to explore Mars’ deep interior, was launched at 7:05 a.m. EDT on May 5, 2018, from Vandenberg Air Force Base on a ULA Atlas V rocket.
The main purpose of the mission is to probe shape of the rocky planets of the inner solar system more than four billion years ago.
If the mission is successful, the technology will provide NASA the ability to quickly transmit status information about the main spacecraft after it lands on Mars, where its two landers — Opportunity and Curiosity rovers have been examining the Red Planet’s surface.
The twin communications-relay CubeSats, built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, are demos of Mars Cube One (MarCO) technology, developed by university students, but launched only into Earth orbit, not deep space in the past.
The basic CubeSat unit is a box roughly 4 inches (10 centimeters) square. Larger CubeSats are multiples of that unit. MarCO’s design is a six-unit CubeSat – about the size of a briefcase — with a stowed size of about 14.4 inches (36.6 centimeters) by 9.5 inches (24.3 centimeters) by 4.6 inches (11.8 centimeters).
“MarCO-A and B are our first and second interplanetary CubeSats designed to monitor InSight for a short period around landing, if the MarCO pair makes it to Mars,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division. “However, these CubeSat missions are not needed for InSight’s mission success. They are a demonstration of potential future capability. The MarCO pair will carry their own communications and navigation experiments as they fly independently to the Red Planet.”
During InSight’s entry, descent and landing (EDL) operations, the lander will transmit information in the UHF radio band to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) flying overhead. MRO will forward EDL information to Earth using a radio frequency in the X band, but cannot simultaneously receive information over one band while transmitting on another. Confirmation of a successful landing could take one hour to reach Earth.
MarCO’s softball-size radio provides both UHF (receive only) and X-band (receive and transmit) functions capable of immediately relaying information received over UHF.
The two CubeSats will separate from the Atlas V booster after launch and travel along their own trajectories to the Red Planet. MarCO’s first challenges are to deploy two radio antennas and two solar panels.
The high-gain, X-band antenna is a flat panel engineered to direct radio waves the way a parabolic dish antenna does. MarCO will be navigated to Mars independently of the InSight spacecraft, with its own course adjustments on the way.
If the MarCO mission succeeds, it entails many such “bring-your-own” communications relay option for use by future Mars missions. This technology demonstration could lead to many other applications to explore and study our solar system.