FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP / Getty Images
NASA has tried a communication experiment with their latest mission to Mars, and it turned out to be spectacular.
On November 26, when the InSight-known probe crashed through the Martian atmosphere on its way to the surface of the planet, two miniature space probes – collectively known as MarCO – relayed InSight's telemetry to Earth, assuring everyone that the landing the probe was successful and soft.
In the past, spacecraft could only transmit simple sounds to the ground during a landing. These sounds would change for important milestones, e.g. As for the parachute dropping, the firing of landing rockets or landing.
This time, InSight team member Christine Szalai summoned altitude from the control room. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena she read the latest InSight onboard radar data. It was live game by game, considering that the radio signal from Mars took about eight minutes to reach Earth.
The MarCO spacecraft are known as cubsesats. These are standardized minispacecraft. The Cubesat model appeared for the first time in 1999 as part of a program designed to make it easier for university students to bring projects into space.
The original Cubesat was only 4 inches on one side and weighed less than 3 pounds. Later versions allowed many times the original dimensions. The MarCOs are the size of six of the original cubesats stacked together.
NASA was initially interested in Cubesats for their educational value, but the space agency has begun to consider them generally more valuable.
"MarCO was first and foremost a technology demonstration," explains JP Marinemission Engineer Anne Marinan. "There were brand new components and technologies that we flew in space for the first time."
The MarCO satellites use a new type of antenna to achieve a low-power radio signal that reaches the Deep Space Network's antennas back on Earth. They also rely on a new drive system.
Marinan says the new technology has not always worked perfectly – one of the engines was constantly licking and making the spacecraft hard to steer. But "it worked perfectly when it had to," she says.
The MarCOs and InSight left Earth last May on the same rocket. The two minisatellites followed closely behind InSight on their way to Mars.
Marinan says MarCO's success in relaying the InSight signal could help make small, low-cost satellites a solid partner in planetary landing emissions.
After the relay mission was over, the MarCOs sailed past Mars; They will go into orbit around the sun. Marinan says the research team on Earth will occasionally review the Cubesats to see how long they last.
InSight, on the other hand, is just beginning its mission to explore the interior of Mars. He is expected to operate on the Martian surface for about two years.
Marinan, who recently received a Ph.D., says MarCo was her first assignment at JPL. What do you do for an encore if your first mission has worked so well?
"I'm actually building another spacecraft," says Marinan. It is another miniature satellite, this time with its own scientific mission: to study a near-Earth asteroid.