CubeSats are the anti-big ticket space missions.
They come as small as 4 inches squared and in units that size weigh about 3 pounds. They currently carry cameras, high gain antennas, radios and other scientific equipment, and because of their weight and size they can easily hitch a ride on a rocket sending a traditional large payload into orbit.
More than 900 CubeSats have been launched since they began in being deployed early this century, but only two have left low-Earth orbit.
Those two went to Mars last year along with the InSight lander (a deep geology mission) and despite some short-term but nerve-racking radio silence just before they were needed, they performed exactly as planned.
In the process they both heightened the profile and the desirability of CubeSats as a growing addition to space science and commerce.
Called Mars Cube One or MarCO, the two that accompanied InSight were both a technological demonstration and an important operational component — serving as the communication link between the spacecraft and Earth for seven crucial minutes during InSight’s descent.
“We exceeded expectations,” said MarCO chief engineer Andrew Klesh of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, speaking during a NASA Future In-Space Operations (FISO) webinar.
“Getting into deep space like we did shows that this is only the beginning for CubeSat missions to explore the solar system. They are a real addition to communications and they provide a new way to conduct science along the way.”
While they were launched on the rocket that sent InSight to Mars, they detached soon after liftoff and flew on their own power to the scheduled meeting place on Mars.
The MarCO CubeSats maintained contact with Earth for almost all of the 6 month journey to Mars and then performed as planned during the InSight descent and landing, they lost touch with Earth only weeks after. … Read more