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.
Research that will help prepare NASA astronauts and robotic explorers for future missions to Mars is among the two tons of cargo now on its way to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. The spacecraft launched on a Falcon 9 rocket at 4:10 p.m. EDT Tuesday, April 14 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
“Five years ago this week, President Obama toured the same SpaceX launch pad used today to send supplies, research and technology development to the ISS,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “Back then, SpaceX hadn’t even made its first orbital flight. Today, it’s making regular flights to the space station and is one of two American companies, along with The Boeing Company, that will return the ability to launch NASA astronauts to the ISS from U.S. soil and land then back in the United States. That’s a lot of progress in the last five years, with even more to come in the next five.”
The mission is the company’s sixth cargo delivery flight to the station through NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract. Dragon’s cargo will support approximately 40 of the more than 250 science and research investigations that will be performed during Expeditions 43 and 44, including numerous human research investigations for NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s one-year mission in space.
Science payloads will support experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science — research that improves life on Earth and drives progress for future space exploration. Investigations include:
A study of potential methods for counteracting cell damage that occurs in a microgravity environment
The Cell Shape and Expression research program will provide for the first time a reliable experimental model able to highlight the relationships between microgravity, cell shape and gene expression, which may also inform pharmacological ways to counteract microgravity-induced cell damages.
Research to improve understanding of bone cells, which could lead to treatments for osteoporosis and muscle wasting conditions
Osteo-4 studies the effects of microgravity on the function of osteocytes, which are the most common cells in bone. These cells reside within the mineralized bone and can sense mechanical forces, or the lack of them, but researchers do not know how. Osteo-4 allows scientists to analyze changes in the physical appearance and genetic expression of mouse bone cells in microgravity.
Continued studies into astronaut vision changes
Dragon also will deliver hardware to support an ongoing one-year crew study known as Fluid Shifts. More than half of American astronauts experience vision changes and alterations to parts of their eyes during and after long-duration spaceflight. The Fluid Shifts investigation measures how much fluid shifts from the lower body to the upper body, in or out of cells and blood vessels, and determines the impact these shifts have on fluid pressure in the head and changes in vision and eye structures.
Tests on a new material that could one day be used as a synthetic muscle for robotics explorers of the future
Robots can perform tasks too repetitive, difficult or dangerous for humans. Robots built with synthetic muscle would have more human-like capabilities, but the material would have to withstand the rigors of space. This investigation tests the radiation resistance of an electroactivepolymer called Synthetic Muscle, developed by RasLabs, which can contract and expand like real muscles.
The spacecraft also will deliver hardware needed for the installation of two International Docking Adapters scheduled for delivery on future SpaceX missions. Once installed, these adapters will enable commercial crew spacecraft to dock to the space station.
ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti will use the space station’s robotic arm to grapple Dragon to the station at 7 a.m. Friday, April 17. Expedition 43 Commander Terry Virts of NASA will assist.
After about five weeks, Dragon will depart the space station for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California. The capsule will return more than 3,000 pounds of science, hardware, crew supplies and spacewalk tools.
The International Space Station is a convergence of science, technology and human innovation that enables us to demonstrate new technologies and make research breakthroughs not possible on Earth. It has been continuously occupied since November 2000 and, since then, has been visited by more than 200 people and a variety of international and commercial spacecraft. The ISS remains the springboard to NASA’s next giant leap in exploration, including future missions to an asteroid and Mars.
For more information about International Space Station science and research, visit:
The first one-year crew for the International Space Station is set to launch Friday, March 27.NASA Television will provide extensive coverage of the launch and the crew’s arrival to the orbital laboratory.
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will spend a year living and working aboard the space station and will launch with cosmonaut Gennady Padalka. The trio will become part of the station’s Expedition 43 crew.
Hatches between the Soyuz and the station will be opened at approximately 11:15 p.m., at which time Expedition 43 Commander Terry Virts of NASA and his crewmates, Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos and Samantha Cristoforetti of ESA (European Space Agency), will greet Kelly, Kornienko and Padalka. Hatch opening coverage begins on NASA TV at 10:45 p.m.
Kelly and Kornienko will spend a year on the space station to better understand how the human body reacts and adapts to the harsh environment of space. Data from the expedition will be used to determine whether there are ways to further reduce the risks on future long-duration missions to an asteroid and eventually Mars.
The crew will support several hundred experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science — research that impacts life on Earth. Data and samples will be collected throughout the year from a series of studies involving Scott and his twin brother, former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly. The studies will compare data from the genetically-identical Kelly brothers to identify any subtle changes caused by spaceflight.
Padalka will spend six months aboard the outpost, during which he will become the first four-time station commander and record holder for most cumulative time spent in space.
For the full schedule of prelaunch, launch and docking coverage, visit: