NASA’s next trip to Mars will include two tiny satellites called CubeSats. The InSight mission is expected to launch in March 2016. It’s primary mission will be to place a stationary lander on the surface of Mars to study Mars’ interior.

Yesterday, NASA announced two CubeSats will hitch a ride on the same rocket. This will be a historic launch for CubeSats. It will mark the first time the tiny satellites have flown in deep space.

The demonstration is called Mars Cube One (MarCO) and has huge implications for Mars missions. If MarCO’s flyby is successful, NASA will have the technology to quickly transmit status information about the main spacecraft after it touches down on Mars.

Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, stresses that MarCO is an independent part of the InSight mission and is “not needed for mission success.”

Mars communications now and in the future

On September 28, 2016, InSight will descend and land on the red planet. During descent, InSight will transmit information in the UHF radio band to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). MRO will then take this information and beam it to Earth in the X band.

The problem is that MRO cannot receive information in one band and send in another at the same time. That’s where MarCO comes in.

According to NASA:

MarCO’s softball-size radio provides both UHF (receive only) and X-band (receive and transmit) functions capable of immediately relaying information received over UHF.

Shortly after launch, the two CubeSats will separate from the Atlas V booster. MarCO’s first hurdle will be deploying two radio antennas and two solar panels. The two tiny satellites will tread their own path to Mars with course adjustments independent of the InSight vehicle along the way.

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If MarCO’s mission is a success, NASA will have the ability to send individual communication options for future landers – or any other deep space mission.

Is this your first time hearing about InSight? Here’s some more info

– InSight stands for Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.

– The mission’s primary objective is to “understand the evolutionary formation of rocky planets, including Earth, by investigating the interior structure and processes of Mars.” InSight will also study the Martian tectonic activity.

– InSight uses technology that was first put to the test during the successful Phoenix mission in 2007. Reusing this tech helps NASA keep costs down while also exploring the interior of Mars.

– InSight will carry two primary science instruments. The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) and the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3). I marked each in the image below.

InSight lander

– The SEIS will precisely measure Mars earthquakes and other internal activity.

– The HP3 package will pierce 5 meters into Mars’ surface and take heat measurements.

– InSight will land on Mars on September 2016 and is expected to operate for two years.

Image: Student-made CubeSats being deployed from the International Space Station

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