Yes, the latest Mars probe deserves all the accolades heaped upon NASA for its successful landing Monday (only 40 percent of all Mars missions are a success). But spare a round of applause for two tiny spacecraft escorting InSight along the 301-million-mile journey.
The two Mars Cube One satellites, dubbed MarCO-A and MarCO-B, are each not much bigger than a briefcase. But the Lilliputian twins made history as the first CubeSats to venture out of low-Earth orbit into deep space. More significantly, they pioneered a new model for relatively inexpensive interplanetary communication.
Until now, when NASA wanted to talk to a Mars probe, they’ve repositioned a large research satellite already in orbit around the Red Planet. This time, the 800-pound InSight brought its own comms team. As the lander descended to the planet (a cosmic braking maneuver known as “seven minutes of terror”), the MarCOs circled above, relaying data about InSight’s status back to mission control in California within just eight minutes – a process that on previous missions had taken up to three hours. CubeSats: Faster, cheaper, and more nimble.
“MarCO,” one NASA engineer told IEEE Spectrum, “is a pathfinder for future missions.”
As the InSight probe starts its seismic study of Mars, the MarCO twins will continue on an elliptical orbit around our sun, once again going where no CubeSat has gone before.
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