CubeSat to fly in deep space

June 30th, 2015, Published in Articles: EngineerIT

Artist impression of two CubeSats in a Mars orbit

Artist’s impression of two CubeSats in a Mars orbit.

Two CubeSats will be flying past Mars in 2016 just as NASA’s next Mars lander, InSight, is descending through the Martian atmosphere and landing on the surface. Mars Cube One (MarCO), will provide an experimental communications relay to speedily inform Earth about the landing

Artist impression of TshepisoSat  in orbit

Artist’s impression of TshepisoSat in orbit.

CubeSats are a class of spacecraft based on a standardised small size and modular use of off-the-shelf technologies. In 1999 California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) and Stanford University developed the CubeSat specifications to promote and develop the skills necessary for the design, manufacturing, and testing of small satellites intended for low Earth orbit (LEO) that perform a number of scientific research and explore new space technologies. Although the bulk of development and launches come from academia, the CubeSat format is also popular with amateur radio satellite builders. South Africa has one CubeSat, TshepisoSat, in orbit built by students at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology with several other CubeSats in the planning and prototype stages at various institutions in South Africa.

This will be the first time CubeSats will fly  in deep space.  If this flyby demonstration is successful, the technology will provide NASA the ability to quickly transmit status information about the main spacecraft after it lands on Mars.

The basic CubeSat unit is a box roughly 10 x 10 x10 cm. Larger CubeSats are multiples of that unit. MarCO’s design is a six-unit CubeSat – about the size of a briefcase.

MarCO will launch in March 2016 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California on the same United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket as NASA’s Interior Exploration using seismic investigations, Geodesy and heat transport (InSight) lander. Insight is NASA’s first mission to understand the interior structure of the Red Planet. MarCO will fly by Mars while InSight is landing, in September 2016.

“MarCO is an experimental capability that has been added to the InSight mission, but is not needed for mission success,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “MarCO will fly independently to Mars.”

During InSight’s entry, descent and landing (EDL) operations on 28 September 2016, the lander will transmit information in the UHF band to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) flying overhead. MRO will forward EDL information to Earth using a radio frequency in the X band, but cannot simultaneously receive information over one band while transmitting on another. Confirmation of a successful landing could be received by the orbiter more than an hour before it’s relayed to Earth.

MarCO’s radio is about softball-size and provides both UHF (receive only) and X-band (receive and transmit) functions capable of immediately relaying information received over UHF.

The two CubeSats will separate from the Atlas V booster after launch and travel along their own trajectories to the Red Planet. After release from the launch vehicle, MarCO’s first challenges are to deploy two radio antennas and two solar panels. The high-gain, X-band antenna is a flat panel engineered to direct radio waves the way a parabolic dish antenna does. MarCO will be navigated to Mars independently of the InSight spacecraft, with its own course adjustments on the way.

Ultimately, if the MarCO demonstration mission succeeds, it could allow for a “bring-your-own” communications relay option for use by future Mars missions in the critical few minutes between Martian atmospheric entry and touchdown.

By verifying CubeSats are a viable technology for interplanetary missions, and feasible on a short development timeline, this technology demonstration could lead to many other applications to explore and study our solar system.

Related Articles

  • Quantum computing is important for Africa
  • Disparate radio systems threaten public safety
  • The cloud is still “cloudy”
  • Helping consumer monitor and manage water consumption
  • Gadgets4Geeks – June 2019