MarCO CubeSats are now Speaking Loud and Clear

MarCO CubeSats are now Speaking Loud and Clear

Tiny spacecraft can provide engineers with an up-to-the-minute feedback during a landing.

All the space agencies around the globe spend billions of dollars, every year, on their space program. The fact that continuous advancement in technology is needed to explore the depths of deep space is a massive part of this expenditure. Similarly, the cost of building a huge spacecraft is another dominant factor. While the budget of research cannot be hampered, smaller spacecraft can help in reducing the expenses. The MarCO CubeSats is an important development in this regard.

This mission of NASA was initiated to observe whether two CubeSats can survive a trip to deep space or not. The end result showed that they are more than capable of surviving the trip. They quietly accompanied NASA’s InSight on a 7-month long journey towards Mars and sprung to life during the descent of the lander. The data sent by these briefcase-sized spacecraft enabled the engineers to monitor the landing in a different way. Both MarCO-A and MarCO-B (also known as EVE and WALL-E) uses experimental radios and antennas for their working. The CubeSats provided some invaluable information to the landing team of InSight in just 8 minutes (the time taken by radio waves to travel from Mars to Earth). The Chief Engineer of MarCO, Andy Klesh, praised them by saying,

WALL-E and EVE performed just as we expected them to. They were an excellent test of how CubeSats can serve as ‘tag-alongs’ on future missions, giving engineers up-to-the-minute feedback during a landing.”

None of these spacecraft was equipped with any science instruments but scientists did test the feasibility of performing some useful tasks with future CubeSats. For instance, MarCO-A transmitted some radio signals through the edge of Martian atmosphere as it flew by the boundary of the red planet. Interaction with the atmosphere of Mars brings certain changes to the signals which can be examined after receiving them on Earth.

This will help researchers to determine how much atmosphere is present at Mars. In addition that, it might guide a little about its composition. John Baker, the Program Manager for Small Spacecraft at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), talked about the potential of CubeSats and said,

CubeSats have incredible potential to carry cameras and science instruments out to deep space. They’ll never replace the more capable spacecraft NASA is best known for developing. But they’re low-cost ride-alongs that can allow us to explore in new ways.”

Historical evidence suggests that landing on Mars is not an easy feat to achieve by any means. Before the successful landing of InSight, only 40% of all the attempted missions to Mars were successful in touching the Martian soil. CubeSats will prove extremely handy in case of unsuccessful landings as it will record the events leading to the failure. This will allow engineers to design improved landing technologies.

Other than that, some consumer-grade cameras can also be incorporated into these CubeSats. In fact, this experiment has already been performed as MarCO-B captured the red planet in a sequence of shots as it approached Mars. It was programmed to turn in order to get these images. Once landed on the Martian soil, it turned back to take a farewell image of the planet. It also tried to get some photos of Phobos and Deimos, the two moons of Mars. Contrary to that, the cameras of MarCO-A were found to be faulty just before the launch. Cody Colley, the Mission Manager of MarCO at JPL, referred to these images in the following words:

WALL-E sent some great postcards from Mars! It’s been exciting to see the view from almost 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) above the surface.”

Despite the fact that all the objectives of the mission have been achieved, the team of MarCO is still collecting the additional data available on each of these CubeSats. They want a detailed analysis of the performance of their relay capability and the quantity of fuel left in each of these tiny spacecraft. This mission is being appreciated in all sectors of the scientific community as the engineers involved in this venture are quite young. Joel Krajewski, the Project Manager of the MarCO Mission, commended them by saying,

MarCO is mostly made up of early-career engineers and, for many, MarCO is their first experience out of college on a NASA mission. We are proud of their accomplishment. It’s given them valuable experience on every facet of building, testing and operating a spacecraft in deep space.”

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