NASA's Tiny and Block-Shaped 'CubeSats' Correct Course and Head Toward Mars

Saturday, 02 June 2018 - 4:17PM
Space
Mars
NASA
Saturday, 02 June 2018 - 4:17PM
NASA's Tiny and Block-Shaped 'CubeSats' Correct Course and Head Toward Mars
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NASA/JPL-Caltech
A typical spacecraft is large, bulky, and extremely expensive. A CubeSat is not a typical spacecraft.

CubeSats are a fairly new and low-budget spacecraft that's about the size of a small briefcase and very easy to transport as a result. Naturally, NASA has made some of their own, and just recently launched two CubeSats named MarCO-A and MarCO-B - short for "Mars Cube One" - on the same rocket that fired their larger Mars InSight lander into space.

And now the twin MarCO cubes have completed a first for any CubeSats, by successfully pulling off a trajectory correction maneuver, a necessary step during any spacecraft launch. During the maneuver, the spacecraft refines its launch to correct for any ways the launch may have thrown them off course, and MarCO-A and B are now making a beeline straight for Mars. 



Even though they launched at the same time as the InSight lander, the lander already pulled off this course correction a couple weeks prior. It's not necessary for the CubeSats to arrive at the Red Planet at the same time as the lander, although they will be coordinating with each other; while InSight collects data from the surface of Mars, it'll relay that data back to the CubeSats in Mars' orbit. Who, in turn, send that data back to Earth.

Before MarCO could begin the course correction, they were engaged in communication tests to ensure that the spacecraft responsible for relaying data could effectively talk to us out in space. Since interplanetary travel has never been attempted with tech like this, there's a lot of room for things to go wrong.

And indeed, not everything went smoothly at first. MarCO-A pointed itself toward Mars without any trouble, but MarCO-B has a leaky thruster valve which has been impacting its trajectory in some small ways. But in space, just like a ship crossing the ocean, even a small change in trajectory can send the vessel wildly off course. It's still expected that MarCO-B will reach Mars, but NASA is keeping a close eye on it.

John Baker, the program manager for the "SmallSats" program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the following in an official statement from the space agency:

Opening quote
"Our broadest goal was to demonstrate how low-cost CubeSat technology can be used in deep space for the first time. With both MarCOs on their way to Mars, we've already traveled farther than any CubeSat before them."
Closing quote


But that issue aside, things seem to be going well for the first Mars-bound cubes, and at least one of them is on track to arrive with little trouble. Hopefully both make it safely, because despite being spacecraft, there's some sentimentality toward MarCO among JPL engineers. After all, their nicknames back at NASA are "WALL-E" and "EVA" after the Pixar film WALL-E.

So it'd be tragic if the two CubeSats get separated during their voyage to the Red Planet. Here's hoping for safe travels.

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