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NASA's Mars InSight mission opens the door to the hyper-affordable satellite industry

On November 26, 2018, the NASA InSight lander arrived at Mars, our neighboring red planet, after a journey of nearly seven months in the depths of space, but did not travel alone. Twin Satellite, collectively named "Mars Cube One" (MarCO), was launched aboard the same Atlas V rocket on May 5, 2018 and followed closely. The MarCO mission was conducted with InSight to demonstrate the communication and navigation capabilities of the CubeSat satellites. Each unit measures approximately 14.5 inches by 9.5 inches, forming a six-unit CubeSat, and their mission represents a new chapter in space exploration by citizens.

An image of Mars returned by MarCO. | Credit: NASA / JPL

What are CubeSats?

CubeSats are tiny satellites with specific dimensions (multiples of 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm, 1 kg) and usually built with standard components. Initially, they aimed to provide affordable access to spaces to the academic scientific community. They have since been extended to a multitude of other civilian projects, both nonprofit and commercial. NASA in particular has made every effort to formalize the requirements for this type of satellite mission, even providing guides to help the team's efforts. To date, CubeSat projects have included such things as orbital telescopes, propulsion concepts (ion motors, solar sails), radio transmissions and sonication music.

Given that the average cost of a standard satellite is several million dollars, both for development and for launch, the average construction and launch cost of $ 50,000 from CubeSat is virtually minimal by comparison. Even projects with high budget requirements can easily find funding, which means that space exploration is no longer limited to large government projects and enterprise products worth millions of dollars. of dollars. Now, with MarCO's successful trip to Mars, Earth's orbit is no longer the limit for these small satellites. With companies like SpaceX advocating for the multinational facility, enthusiastic citizen explorers may be able to participate in the scientific and technological research that will be needed to get us there.

The Mars Cube One mission

MarCO's main mission was to demonstrate the ability to relay status information from the InSight Lander to Earth as the craft descended on the Martian surface. To do this, the CubeSats transmitted signals to Mars reconnaissance Orbiter, already in orbit around NASA, which then transmitted the information to the Earth. Successful transmissions provided scientists with information about InSight status much faster than would otherwise be available due to orbital limitations. In addition, both satellites used their own navigation systems to guide their journey to Mars, thus advancing the cause of tiny satellites in deep space.

MarCO Mission Control. | Credit: Pauline Acalin

The success of the MarCO mission does not just mean good news for future citizen explorers of the planet Mars. With the moon again in the limelight for exploratory missions and the growing interest in nearby space targets such as Venus, the near future of CubeSat projects could be a mine of data. While money was a major obstacle to space science projects, MarCO's CubeSats left the door wide open for the next generation of exploration to begin.

Watch the video below to learn more about NASA's first CubeSats in Deep Space:

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