When NASA launches its next mission on the journey to Mars – a stationary lander in 2016 – the flight will include two CubeSats. This will be the first time CubeSats have flown 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 twin communications-relay CubeSats, being built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California, constitute a technology demonstration called Mars Cube One (MarCO). CubeSats are a class of spacecraft based on a standardized small size and modular use of off-the-shelf technologies. Many have been made by university students, and dozens have been launched into Earth orbit using extra payload mass available on launches of larger spacecraft.
The full-scale mock-up of NASA’s MarCOCubeSat held by Farah Alibay, a systems engineer for the technology demonstration, is dwarfed by the one-half-scale model of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter behind her.
The basic CubeSat unit is a box roughly 4 inches (10 centimeters) square. Larger CubeSats are multiples of that unit. MarCO’s design is a six-unit CubeSat – about the size of a briefcase — with a stowed size of about 14.4 inches (36.6 centimeters) by 9.5 inches (24.3 centimeters) by 4.6 inches (11.8 centimeters).
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 Sept. 28, 2016, the lander will transmit information in the UHF radio 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.
JPL manages MarCO, InSight and MRO for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Technology suppliers for MarCO include: Blue Canyon Technologies of Boulder, Colorado, for the attitude-control system; VACCO Industries of South El Monte, California, for the propulsion system; AstroDev of Ann Arbor, Michigan, for electronics; MMA Design LLC, also of Boulder, for solar arrays; and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems Inc., a Terran Orbital Company in San Luis Obispo, California, for the CubeSat dispenser system.
M-Cubed/COVE-2 is the reflightof a 1U CubeSat developed by U. Michigan to image the Earth at mid-resolution, approximately 200m per pixel, carrying the JPL developed COVE technology validation experiment.
NASA’s Launch Services Program has issued a draft Request for Proposal (RFP) for a new Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS), which would be commercial launch services for small satellites and experiments on science missions using a smaller than currently available class of rockets.
NASA will host a media teleconference at 1 p.m. EDT Monday, May 11 to discuss this strategic initiative, the RFP and the expectation for this class of launch services.
At present, launch opportunities for small satellites — often called CubeSats or nanosatellites — and small science missions are mostly limited to ride-share type arrangements, flying only when space is available on NASA and other launches. The Launch Services Program seeks to develop alternatives to this approach and help foster other launch services dedicated to transporting smaller payloads into orbit. The services acquired through such a contract will constitute the smallest class of launch services used by NASA.
Participants in the media briefing are:
Mark Wiese, chief, Flight Projects Branch, Launch Services Program Business Office, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center
Garrett Skrobot, mission manager, Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa), Launch Services Program, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center
This solicitation, and resulting contract or contracts, is intended to demonstrate a dedicated launch capability for smaller payloads that NASA anticipates it will require on a recurring basis for future science and CubeSat missions. CubeSats already are used in markets, such as imagery collection and analysis. In the future, CubeSat capabilities will include abilities, such as ship and aircraft tracking, improved weather prediction, and broader Internet coverage.
NASA intends to award one or more firm fixed-price VCLS contracts to accommodate 132 pounds (60 kilograms) of CubeSats a single launch or two launches carrying 66 pounds (30 kilograms) each. The launch provider will determine the launch location and date, but the launch must occur by April 15, 2018.
The public may watch or listen to the conference on either the phone or on NASA’s newsaudio website. Members of the media have received other information in order to participate, which has been excluded from this release.
For businessness interested in bidding process, the draft RFP is open for written questions and comments from industry entities until Wednesday, May 20. The final RFP, if issued, is anticipated to be released in June. The draft RFP may be accessed at: http://go.nasa.gov/1KMTeDR
NASA’s Launch Services Program is focused on assuring the availability of long-term launch services for NASA while also promoting the continued evolution of the U.S. commercial space launch market. The capability anticipated to meet the requirement for a smaller launch vehicle represents an emerging category of launch services.