MarCO cubesats prove small satellites add value beyond Earth orbit

by
Anthony Colaprete and his colleagues have been working for more than two years to develop small, low-power instruments to measure winds and obtain vertical profiles of dust and clouds.

Before NASA’s twin Mars Cube One (MarCO) satellites relayed details of the InSight Lander’s 2018 entry, descent and landing on the Red Planet, people questioned the suitability of small satellites and cubesats in particular for deep space.

Could six-unit cubesats propel themselves from low-Earth orbit to Mars? Once outside the Van Allen Belts, could they withstand the radiation?

By showing that they could, MarCO encouraged scientists and engineers to consider additional Mars missions.

“MarCO has shown the promise of small spacecraft beyond the Earth and now there are a number of crafts supported by NASA for science missions and for technology demonstrations that will continue to move us forward in what we can do in the solar system,” said Andrew Klesh, MarCO chief engineer.

Scientists at the NASA Ames Research Center, for example, are developing miniature instruments to measure Martian winds.

“The winds of Mars have never been directly measured,” Anthony Colaprete, a NASA Ames planetary scientist, said by email. “Current methods of deriving wind speeds may be as much as 100% in error. New techniques allow for relatively small instrumentation to provide day and night observations of the Martian winds.”

Colaprete and his colleagues have been working for more than two years to develop small, low-power instruments to measure winds and obtain vertical profiles of dust and clouds.

“These observations would provide a comprehensive data set on the Martian climate and circulation system, critical to describing present and past climates as well as helping plan future robotic and human exploration of Mars,” Colaprete said.

NASA Ames scientists are refining the Aeolus mission design with an eye toward proposing it for NASA’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration program, which selects satellites with a mass of less than 180 kilograms to piggyback on a NASA or commercial launch, or for NASA’s Discovery program, which supports inexpensive exploration missions.

Aeolus instruments also could be mounted on a large spacecraft, but small satellite flight opportunities are more readily available, Colaprete said.

NASA has funded work on other small Mars missions in the past. One is the Phobos Regolith Ion Sample Mission (PRISM), a 12-unit cubesat equipped with an instrument to study particles ejected from the surface of the Martian moons Phobos’ and Deimos’ in response to solar wind and micrometeorite bombardment.

Another smallsat mission, Chariot to the Moons of Mars, proposes sending a 12-unit cubesat with a color camera, multispectral imager and spectrometer to study the surface of Phobos and Deimos. The mission is designed to shed light on the formation of Phobos and Deimos, evaluate the feasibility of in-situ resource utilization and study their ongoing evolution. The Chariot cubesat features a deployable drag skirt to slow the cubesat’s momentum enough to enter Mars orbit.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 18, 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.