NASA CubeSats steer toward Mars

June 2, 2018, JPL/NASA
An artist's concept of one of NASA's MarCO CubeSats. The twin MarCOs are the first CubeSats to complete a trajectory correction maneuver, firing their thrusters to guide themselves toward Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA has achieved a first for the class of tiny spacecraft known as CubeSats, which are opening new access to space.

Over the past week, two CubeSats called MarCO-A and MarCO-B have been firing their propulsion systems to guide themselves toward Mars. This process, called a , allows a spacecraft to refine its path to Mars following launch. Both CubeSats successfully completed this maneuver; NASA's InSight spacecraft just completed the same process on May 22.

The pair of CubeSats that make up the Mars Cube One (MarCO) mission both launched on May 5, along with the InSight lander, which is headed toward a Nov. 26 touchdown on the Red Planet. They were designed to trail InSight on the way to Mars, aiming to relay back data about InSight as it enters the planet's atmosphere and attempts to land. The MarCOs were never intended to collect any science data; instead, they are a test of miniaturized communication and navigation technology that can blaze a path for future CubeSats sent to other planets.

Both MarCO-A and B successfully completed a set of communications tests in the past couple of weeks, said John Baker, program manager for planetary SmallSats at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL built both MarCO CubeSats and leads the mission.

"Our broadest goal was to demonstrate how low-cost CubeSat technology can be used in deep space for the first time," Baker said. "With both MarCOs on their way to Mars, we've already traveled farther than any CubeSat before them."

While MarCO-A corrected its course to Mars relatively smoothly, MarCO-B faced some unexpected challenges. Its maneuver was smaller due to a leaky thruster valve that engineers have been monitoring for the past several weeks. The leak creates small trajectory changes on its own. Engineers have factored in these nudges so that MarCO-B can still perform a trajectory correction maneuver. It will take several more weeks of tracking to refine these nudges so that MarCO-B can follow InSight on its cruise through space.

"We're cautiously optimistic that MarCO-B can follow MarCO-A," said Joel Krajewski of JPL, MarCO's project manager. "But we wanted to take more time to understand the underlying issues before attempting the next course-correction maneuver."

Once the MarCO team has analyzed data, they'll know the size of follow-on maneuvers. Several more course corrections will be needed to reach the Red Planet.

Should the CubeSats make it all the way to Mars, they will attempt to relay data to Earth about InSight's landing. InSight won't rely on either CubeSat for that data relay, however; that job will fall to NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Explore further: A pale blue dot, as seen by a CubeSat

Related Stories

A pale blue dot, as seen by a CubeSat

May 16, 2018

NASA's Voyager 1 took a classic portrait of Earth from several billion miles away in 1990. Now a class of tiny, boxy spacecraft, known as CubeSats, have just taken their own version of a "pale blue dot" image, capturing Earth ...

NASA's first deep-space CubeSats say: 'Polo!'

May 6, 2018

NASA has received radio signals indicating that the first-ever CubeSats headed to deep space are alive and well. The first signal was received at 12:15 p.m. PST (3:15 p.m. EST) yesterday; the second at 1:58 p.m. PST (4:58 ...

NASA engineers dream big with small spacecraft

April 20, 2018

Many of NASA's most iconic spacecraft towered over the engineers who built them: think Voyagers 1 and 2, Cassini or Galileo—all large machines that could measure up to a school bus.

Recommended for you

Astronomers spot signs of supermassive black hole mergers

October 23, 2018

New research, published today in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, has found evidence for a large number of double supermassive black holes, likely precursors of gigantic black hole merging events. ...

ALMA maps Europa's temperature

October 23, 2018

Jupiter's icy moon Europa has a chaotic surface terrain that is fractured and cracked, suggesting a long-standing history of geologic activity.

NASA's First Image of Mars from a CubeSat

October 23, 2018

NASA's MarCO mission was designed to find out if briefcase-sized spacecraft called CubeSats could survive the journey to deep space. Now, MarCO—which stands for Mars Cube One—has Mars in sight.

Ultra-close stars discovered inside a planetary nebula

October 23, 2018

An international team of astronomers have discovered two stars in a binary pair that complete an orbit around each other in a little over three hours, residing in the planetary nebula M3-1. Remarkably, the stars could drive ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.