In about a month, NASA’s InSight lander will touch down on the red planet’s surface. Two CubeSats hitched a ride too as part of the Mars Cube One, or MarCO mission. These satellites are small enough to stuff into a backpack. Recently, NASA released the first image of Mars ever captured by one of these mini-satellites.
It doesn’t look like much, but just the presence of these CubeSats has far-reaching implications. NASA now knows the miniature satellites can survive a trip into deep space. What NASA wants to see next is if the two CubeSats can relay data when InSight attempts its landing in late November.
NASA’s Jakob Van Zyl (director of the Solar System Exploration Directorate at NASA’s JPL) paints a picture of what CubeSats could do for space exploration.
“Our hope is that MarCO could help democratize deep space. The technology is cheap enough that you could envision countries entering space that weren’t players in the past. Even universities could do this.”
When InSight enters Mars’ atmosphere, these two CubeSats will be watching and relaying data back to Earth. NASA won’t be relying on MarCO for the InSight mission though. All the data and communications will be routed through NASA orbiters over Mars. MarCO is a test to see if a pair of CubeSats could serve as communication and data relay platforms.
If the tests go smoothly, future missions to Mars could bring a CubeSat to serve as a communications relay during the critical landing phase. And now that we know CubeSats can survive a trip into deep space, they could be used as mini-explorers throughout the solar system.
The exploration of deep space wouldn’t be limited to the largest space agencies anymore. Small countries, private companies, and universities could build small probes to explore beyond low-Earth orbit.
Companies like Planet use the tiny satellites for daily Earth imaging. With MarCO, NASA shows the satellites can survive beyond Earth orbit. Maybe one day other planets will have a group of CubeSats above them beaming back regular image data back to Earth.
As for InSight, it won’t cruise around the Martian surface like a rover. It’ll stay right where it lands and probe the planet’s interior. A seismometer attached to the lander will be able to detect quakes anywhere on the planet. InSight’s other main instrument is a spike embedded with heat sensors. It will hammer in up to 16 feet underground and measure heat trapped inside Mars.
Measurements will give scientists insight into Martian geographic features and could even tell where rivers ran during Mars’ younger years according to NASA.