Image courtesy of NASA Johnson Creative Commons

(Image courtesy of NASA Johnson, Creative Commons).

Tiny Satellites Audition for Deep Space Communications

Over the last five years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has launched over thirty tiny satellites called CubeSats into low-earth orbit. Now, the agency is planning to send CubeSats to Mars. Currently under development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the satellites – called Mars Cube One (MarCO) – will be launched with the Insight lander in March 2016.

MarCO is a communications-relay system designed to transmit status information on NASA’s Insight lander as it lands on Mars. The MarCO satellites measure 24 square inches. During the entry, descent, and landing phases, the Insight lander will transmit information in the ultra-high frequency or UHF band to the satellites.

Splitting capabilities between the two satellites, MarCO will receive the UHF band transmission and then send it to Earth using an X-band frequency. The high-gain, X-band antenna is designed to direct radio waves in the same way as a parabolic dish antenna. Both satellites will be powered by solar panels.

Jim Green, the director of NASA’s planetary science division, said that the MarCO satellites are not mission critical. But they present an interesting opportunity to experiment with CubeSats in deep space, he said. MarCO’s capabilities will be measured against NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

The Insight will send the same status information to the MRO satellite orbiting around Mars in the UHF band. The MRO will transmit it to Earth using the X-band. Unlike the MarCO system, the orbiting satellite cannot receive information on one band while simultaneously transmitting via another. It could take over an hour for the MRO to send information to Earth.

The experiment’s success depends on whether MarCO will be able to transmit the status information faster than the MRO. Its success could lead to other CubeSat applications in deep space exploration. The technology could be used in subsequent missions to Mars, allowing spacecraft to bring along their own communication relays, Green said.

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