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NASA’s CubeSat Revolution is Coming to Deep Space

In 2016 NASA will launch a mission to Mars atop the powerful Atlas V rocket. It will consist of a stationary lander called Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight). InSight is NASA's first and primary mission of this deep space trek devoted to understanding the interior structure of the Red Planet. The spacecraft will also carry two communications-relay satellites called CubeSats in a secondary mission. This CubeSat technology demonstration is called Mars Cube One (MarCO) and will do a fly-by of the Red Planet. The two CubeSats will separate from the Atlas V booster after launch and travel along their own trajectories and course adjustments on the way to the Red Planet; InSight will continue on separately land on the Mars surface.

The basic CubeSat unit is a small box measuring 4 inches (10 centimeters) square. Larger CubeSats are multiples of that size unit. MarCO's design is a six-unit CubeSat – about the size of a briefcase — with a stowed size of about 14.4 inches (36.6 centimeters) by 9.5 inches (24.3 centimeters) by 4.6 inches (11.8 centimeters). CubeSats belong to a class of research spacecraft called nanosatellites.

The CubeSat (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The CubeSat (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s CubeSat Lab early tests were with PhoneSat whose team I met back in a 2013 visit to NASA Ames facility in California.

After release from the Atlas V launch vehicle, MarCO's first challenges will be deploying two radio antennas and two solar panels. Its high-gain, X-band antenna is a flat panel engineered to direct radio waves similar to the way a parabolic dish antenna does. Ultimately, if the MarCO demonstration mission succeeds, it could allow for a communications relay option for use by future Mars missions in the critical few minutes between Martian atmospheric entry and touchdown.

MarCO will do a fly-by of the Red Planet (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

MarCO will do a fly-by of the Red Planet (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA/JPL says that ultimately entire constellations of CubeSats, flying in formation and working together, could make powerful observations analyzing everything from the nature of Europa's icy shell to the extremely low-frequency energy of far-away galactic nuclei and black holes .

In more complex missions, swarms of CubeSats could be anchored by a single “hub” — a powerful central spacecraft that can handle complex computational tasks and data transmission back to Earth. NASA’s aim is to keep each CubeSat simple and focused to allow for more inexpensive deployment, greater reliability, and the incremental ability to add new CubeSats or replace malfunctioning units.

Ultimately in future trips to Mars, the NASA Space Launch System (SLS) will replace the Atlas V rocket for deep space endeavors.

Space Launch System (SLS) (Image courtesy of NASA JPL)

Space Launch System (SLS) (Image courtesy of NASA JPL)

The SLS underwent a Critical Design Review in May lasting until July. NASA says that the first flight test of the SLS will be configured for a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capacity and carry an un-crewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit to test the performance of the integrated system. The SLS will ultimately be the most powerful rocket ever built and provide an incredible lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons) to enable missions even farther into deep space than Mars.

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