NASA is working on another project: CubeSats. CubeSats are small spacecrafts that uses off the shelf technologies. Come 2016, when NASA launches its InSight lander to Mars, they will likewise send two state-of-the-art CubeSats.
CubeSats , even those that are made by university students, have flown into Earth’s orbit by the dozen using extra payload mass from larger spacecraft liftoffs.
These will act as communication satellite to NASA’s ground team, thus making communication from outer space faster and more reliable.
NASA explains that these CubeSats are critical to their information gathering about the InSight lander after it descends to Mars.
CubeSats, a twin communication relay satellite, also called Mars Cube One (MarCO) are being built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. MarCO is scheduled for launching in March 2016 aboard the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket along with the mission’s main spacecraft, InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) lander.
Although all three space vessels will leave the Earth together, the two CubeSats will work independently, merely flying by Mars and serving its purpose of transmitting valuable information about the InSight lander while the larger spacecraft will land on the Red Planet in September of 2016.
After its launch, the two CubeSats will separate from the Atlas V booster, flying through their own trajectories to Mars. Once on their own, MarCO’s first job is that of deploying two radio antennas and two solar panels.
“MarCO is an experimental capability that has been added to the InSight mission, [of understanding Mars’ interior structure] but is not needed for mission success,” elucidates Director Jim Green, of the planetary science division at the NASA’s headquarters in Washington, DC.
If the MarCO project succeeds, it will make space exploration to Mars a breeze, allowing for the possibility of a ” ‘bring-your-own’ ” communications relay option” in future explorations of the Red Planet.