Mars-bound interplanetary CubeSats phone home
NASA has confirmed the two hitchhiking CubeSats that rode along with the InSight Mars probe during its historic launch are alive and well. The space agency says it received the first signals from the first Mars Cube One (MarCO) mini-satellite at 12:15 pm PDT on May 5 and from the second at 1:58 pm the same day.
MarCO-A and MarCO-B were launched on Saturday with the InSight spacecraft at 4:05 am from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California as part of the first launch of a deep space mission from the US West Coast. Though the two briefcase-size craft are accompanying InSight on its way to Mars, they are not a direct part of the geology lander's mission. Instead, their purpose is to act as technology demonstrators to determine if such small, simple satellites can operate over interplanetary distances.
NASA says the signals from the MarCO probes ended the uncertainty about their condition. Neither have been tested since mid-March, when they were packed away prior to loading aboard the Atlas V rocket. The fear was that the prolonged stowage might cause the onboard batteries to lose their electrical charge and the satellites to malfunction. However, the signals proved that they both survived and deployed successfully.
"Both MarCO-A and B say 'Polo.' It's a sign that the little sats are alive and well," said Andy Klesh, chief engineer for the MarCO mission.
Both spacecraft were able to deploy their solar panels before stabilizing their attitude, align the panels with the Sun, and activate their radios. NASA says that the next fortnight will be spent making system checks while mission control assesses how well the little probes fare under the harsh temperature variants and intense radiation of deep space. In addition, the pair will trial new folding high-gain antennas, as well as attitude control and propulsion systems.
If all goes well, MarCO-A and MarCO-B will act as experimental relays to help monitor the InSight lander as it enters the Martian atmosphere and touches down on the Red Planet in November.
"We're nervous but excited," says Joel Krajewski of JPL, MarCO's project manager. "A lot of work went into designing and testing these components so that they could survive the trip to Mars and relay data during InSight's landing. But our broader goal is to learn more about how to adapt CubeSat technologies for future deep-space missions."