Science News

NASA’s Historic Cubesats Phone Home

Photo from NASA

Two small satellites that were launched on a historic Mars mission have made contact with Earth for the first time.

The Mars Cube One team, officially called MarCO-A and MarCO-B, left early Saturday morning, shooting up into the skies over California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base with NASA’s InSight Mars lander. These are the first ever cubesats launched to another planet, reports.

Radio signals from the briefcase-sized cubesats were received on Saturday afternoon, according to NASA officials. Andy Klesh, MarCO mission chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement,

It’s a sign that the little sats are alive and well.

If things go as planned, MarCO-A and MarCO-B will fly by the Red Planet on November 26, the same day InSight is set to land. The cubesats will try to send data back to Earth from InSight during the lander’s perilous entry, descent and landing sequence, which will take seven minutes.

But the main goal of the MarCO mission is to show that cubesats, which until now have only been limited to Earth orbits, are capable of exploring interplanetary space. The $18.5 million satellites are demonstrating several cubesat technologies on their seven-month journey to Mars, including a folding, high-gain antenna and a cold-gas propulsion system.

The gas used is compressed R236FA, which is commonly found in fire extinguishers. Because of this, the cubesats have been nicknamed Wall-E and Eva, after the two robots in the Pixar film, “Wall-E.”

MarCO project manager Joel Krajewski, also of JPL, said, “We’re nervous but excited. 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.”

The MarCO mission will end right after the cubesats make it past Mars.

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