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Headed to Mars: A Big Experiment in Tiny Satellites

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© /Associated Press


Rapidly approaching Mars are the two smallest and cheapest spacecraft to ever cross between the planets, in the vanguard of what U.S. and European satellite designers hope one day will be swarms of tiny probes prowling the solar system.

The two 30-pound spacecraft are cruising alongside NASA’s newest Mars lander—an $828 million robotic probe called InSight that NASA engineers hope to land safely on the Red Planet on Nov. 26. While InSight makes its fiery descent, the tiny twin craft will hang back in orbit to act as a communications relay.

Hundreds of such tiny bargain-basement spacecraft, called CubeSats after their student-inspired standardized form, are transforming the business of space operations in Earth orbit. They image crops, beam internet service, gather weather data, track aircraft, monitor factories, and count the cars in shopping malls to gauge retail sales. Aerospace companies have filed plans to orbit thousands of these diminutive satellites in the coming decade.

But until now, no one knew whether these miniature satellites could withstand the rigors of deep space.

NASA’s two MarCO CubeSats, as the pair nearing Mars are called, are the first CubeSats to attempt an interplanetary journey. Launched this past May, each one is no bigger than a briefcase, is built from off-the-shelf commercial parts, and cost $18.2 million—a fraction of the price of the InSight craft they are escorting.

As an engineering experiment, their most important task has been simply to survive the 300-million mile voyage.

“We have our fingers crossed,” said systems engineer Roger Walker, who oversees CubeSats developments at the European Space Agency in the Netherlands. “MarCO is paving the way to explore space at a much reduced cost. For the same cost as a larger mission, we could launch 10 in one go.”

If successful, it could become a turning point in deep space engineering, researchers said. Such tiny probes can be developed not only more cheaply—a tenth of the cost of many traditional missions—but much more quickly, NASA engineers said. The more conventional InSight lander took seven years to design, build and test. The two MarCO craft took just over a year.

“We were given roughly 15 months to go from PowerPoint slides to the flight of two spacecraft,” said MarCO chief engineer Andy Klesh at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “We met the deadline.”

Moreover, spaceflight engineers can be freer to use experimental propulsion systems, electronics and artificial intelligence systems considered too risky for more expensive spacecraft. “MarCO is carrying several systems that we have been waiting decades to put into space,” said Anthony Freeman, director of JPL’s Innovation Foundry, which develops advanced mission concepts.

In fact, the MarCo spacecraft packs a lot of advanced technology into a package about the size of an overnight mail carton. Each one contains a miniaturized guidance, control and navigation system, eight gas-powered thrusters to stay on course, a newly designed flat antenna, a color camera, and the smallest radio ever flown in deep space, JPL engineers said.

Inspired by the success of small satellites orbiting Earth, U.S. and European aerospace engineers are coming up with audacious ideas for inexpensive, high-risk deep space missions. In various scenarios, CubeSats could infiltrate the rings of Saturn, sample the atmosphere of Venus, skim the surface of Jupiter’s moons, explore hundreds of near-Earth asteroids for mineral deposits, or even voyage to the stars.

As artificial intelligence systems become space worthy, NASA and European engineers believe that networks of CubeSats will require little supervision from Earth. One plan calls for a swarm of 50 small satellites to orbit together on the far side of the moon, shielded from Earth’s electromagnetic interference, as a radio telescope mapping signals from the instant after the Big Bang.

Some are already lined up for launch.

Next year, NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, is scheduled to carry 13 CubeSats. One of them, called the Lunar Flashlight, aims to shine a laser light to map the permanently shadowed craters of the lunar South Pole. A second, called NEAScout, will ride on an experimental solar sail to a nearby asteroid.

Dr. Walker and his colleagues at the European Space Agency are developing deep space CubeSat missions for launch by 2023, including a mission to a nearby asteroid to help assess the risk of its collision with Earth.

Indeed, there are more missions in the works than there are rockets to ferry them throughout the solar system. CubeSats typically ride as hitchhikers on other missions, but interplanetary flights are rare. “All these rockets launch with ballast of some kind,” said Dr. Klesh. “We are advocating that this be smart ballast—ballast with a mission.”

By picking up the pace of satellite development, CubeSats are energizing a new generation of deep space explorers.

JPL system engineer Anne Marinan will manage one of the MarCO CubeSats during the Mars landing later this month. She joined JPL in 2016 after finishing her graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I have been at JPL for two years and I already have two satellites on the way to Mars,” she said. “How cool is that?”

She has another one in the works.

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Technology - U.S. Daily News: Headed to Mars: A Big Experiment in Tiny Satellites
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