Two Cubesats will accompany InSight lander to Mars

First interplanetary mission will test tiny satellites' ability to survive the space environment.
By Laurel Kornfeld | May 02, 2018
Two tiny spacecraft known as Cubesats will accompany NASA's InSight lander when it launches to Mars on Saturday, May 5.

Nicknamed "Wall-E" and "Eva" after the lead characters in the 2008 Pixar film "Wall-E," both of whom were robots traveling in space, the identical Cubesats will be the first to ever visit another planet.

Cubesats are equipped with tiny computers that give them increased capabilities though not at the level of larger spacecraft. They are ideal for Earth observation, tracking shipping, and communications. They do not have backup systems.

Jointly dubbed Mars Cube One or MarCO, the Cubesats will launch with InSight on an Atlas V rocket from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Sending them on the mission is largely a test to learn how Cubesats function in the harsh environment of space. Neither will do any science at Mars or send InSight data back to Earth. The latter will be done through antennas on the lander and through NASA's various Mars orbiters.

"These are our scouts. Cubesats haven't had to survive the intense radiation of a trip to deep space before or use propulsion to point their way towards Mars. We hope to blaze a trail," said MarCO chief engineer Andy Klesh of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Wall-E and Eva will follow InSight to Mars and return data about its landing on the Red Planet back to Earth. To facilitate this communication, each Cubesat is equipped with a folding, high-gain antenna.

Data they return on InSight's entry into Mars's atmosphere, descent onto the Red Planet, and landing could provide engineers with crucial insight for future Mars landings.

A NASA statement notes, "Both MarCOs used a compressed gas commonly found in fire extinguishers to push themselves through space, the same way Wall-E did in his 2008 film."

Once the Cubesats are in space, batteries within each one will deploy solar arrays, whose power will turn on their radios.

To make it to Mars, their electronics will have to survive the intense radiation they will encounter in space.

"The twins will be a crucial first test of Cubesat technology beyond Earth orbit, demonstrating how they could be used to further explore the solar system," NASA's statement said.


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