When NASA launches its mission on the trip to Mars on March 2016, it will fly with two small satellites known as CubeSats.
CubeSats are standardized small size spacecraft and modular use of off-the-shelf technologies.
Several such CubeSats have been made by university students and dozens have been launched into Earth orbit using extra payload mass available on launches of larger spacecraft.
The two spacecraft are a technology demonstration intended to help with communications at the critical moment. Thus, if the flyby demonstration is successful, it will provide NASA the ability to quickly communicate status information about the main spacecraft after it lands on Mars, the US space agency said.
The twin communications-relay CubeSats, being built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California, constitute a technology demonstration called Mars Cube One (MarCO).
“MarCO is an experimental capability that has been added to the InSight mission, but is not needed for mission success,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, DC.
MarCO will launch in March 2016 on the same United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket as NASA’s InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) lander.
Insight is NASA’s first mission to study the interior structure of the Red Planet. .InSight will land on Mars in September 2016 while MarCO will only fly by Mars.
Though MarCO will be joining a ride on the giant Atlas V rocket carrying InSight, the CubeSats will not fly to Mars with the lander.
The CubeSats will detach from the Atlas V booster after launch and travel along their own trajectories to the Red Planet.
After release, MarCO’s first challenges are to deploy two radio antennas and two solar panels. It will be navigated to Mars independently of the InSight spacecraft with its own course adjustments on the way.
Ultimately, if the MarCO demonstration mission prospers, it could allow for a “bring-your-own” communications relay option for use by future Mars missions in the critical few minutes between Martian atmospheric entry and touchdown.