PASADENA, California – The success of a pair of cubesats in relaying telemetry from NASA's InSight Mars lander shows that such spacecraft can play an increasing role in future deep space missions, believe their designers.
The Mars Cube One twin satellites, or MarCO, were launched as secondary payloads with the InSight probe in May and flew over Mars when InSight landed on the planet. The cubesats, intended mainly for technological demonstrations, were designed to provide a real-time relay of InSight telemetry during the landing, without which it would have taken hours before the controllers knew if the spacecraft had successfully landed .
Although NASA emphasized the experimental nature of the satellites prior to landing, the MarCO probe functioned as intended, receiving InSight's UHF telemetry during its entry, descent and landing phase and re-broadcasting it at frequencies X received by NASA's Deep Space Network.
"MarCO was there to relay information coming from InSight in real time, and we did it extremely well," said Andy Klesh, chief engineer of MarCO, at a conference of Press at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory held here on November 26, two hours after the landing of InSight. "We did not lose frames or data along the way."
In addition to InSight telemetry, one of the satellites, MarCO-B, returned an image of Mars taken shortly after landing, while the spacecraft was flying 6,000 kilometers from the planet. "We had one last gift to offer," Klesh said to audience applause during the presentation of the image in the auditorium of the press conference. "This image is really our farewell to InSight, our wish for good luck and our farewell to Mars itself."
MarCO's main mission will last about two weeks, he said. The two spacecraft will return other data collected during the flight, including telemetry on the health of the satellites themselves and, possibly, other images of Mars taken in close approach.
The MarCO-A cube also indirectly performed scientific research during the overflight, its radio signals being obstructed by the planet as it passed behind Mars. Measuring signal changes as it passes through the planet's atmosphere just before and after being blocked by the planet itself could provide information on atmospheric conditions. "With that, we are doing science of the atmosphere through Mars, and we will delve into that data as well," Klesh said.
The success of MarCO shows that such small satellites – each MarCO satellite is a six-unit cube – can carry out useful missions beyond the Earth's orbit, opening up new opportunities for such spacecraft at the same time. ;to come up. "This team of mainly part-time workers proved the technology we were trying to demonstrate as part of this mission because it was capable of supporting a large ship like InSight," he said. "We can integrate a smaller, more focused and riskier mission into the solar system and take advantage of new opportunities."
NASA is increasingly interested in the use of cubesats and other small satellites for various scientific missions, initially in the fields of Earth sciences and heliophysics, but also astrophysics and planetary sciences. NASA has not engaged in a mission similar to that of MarCO for its upcoming March lander, the March 2020 rover, but Klesh said the success of MarCO had opened the door to this and to the future. other uses of Smallsat in deep spaces.
"We have shown that this type of boat can support this type of mission, if any," he said. "We are going to work on the opportunities as we go to see where they are needed and how far we can support them in the future."
Prior to landing, project officials had hinted that they were considering options for an extended mission for MarCO, but that they were focused at the time on support for the project. landing InSight. "We are talking with [NASA] Headquarters on what we could do "with an extended mission, Klesh said. This included collecting engineering data to evaluate the "survivability" of the spacecraft and "see what other great science and lessons we can draw from these gears".
"We look forward to these lessons being used in future missions," he added. "There are many small satellites and future cubesats that are operating and are funded by NASA at this point, and we look forward to other concepts in the future."