CubeSats will escort NASA's InSight lander to Mars in 2016

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Mariella Moon
June 13, 2015 3:02 PM
In this article: cubesat, insight, marco, mars, space
CubeSats will escort NASA's InSight lander to Mars in 2016

NASA's InSight lander will make its way to the red planet with two smaller companions: briefcase-sized CubeSats called Mars Cube One (MarCO). Each one measures 14.4 x 9.5 x 4.6 inches and is comprised of six 4-inch square cube satellites. All three of them will be ferried to space aboard an Atlas V rocket, but the smaller solar-powered spacecraft will be operating independently from InSight to act as its link with the ground team. See, the MarCOs are actually communications-relay satellites, programmed to fly over the planet while the lander is descending. Without them, InSight will first have to radio its landing and descent info to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which will then forward it to Earth.

Unfortunately, that method takes time, and the ground team will only know if the landing was successful over an hour later. The CubeSats will allow InSight, which is equipped with tools to dig deep beneath the surface of Mars, to instantly transmit its message back to Earth. According to NASA, this will be the first deep space mission to deploy the pint-sized satellites. It most likely won't be the last either, as the agency is currently working on a CubeSat design specifically for exploring other planets.

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[Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech]

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CubeSats will escort NASA's InSight lander to Mars in 2016