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First Deep Space CubeSats Head For Mars: What Are The Objectives Of NASA's $18.5 Million MarCO Mission?

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NASA launched two CubeSats called MarCO-A and MarCO-B to planet Mars along with the robotic lander Insight last month.

MarCO-B Encounters Problem

The miniaturized satellites have been firing their propulsion systems as they steer toward Mars. During the process known as trajectory correction maneuver, spacecraft refine their path to the Red Planet.

The U.S. space agency revealed that MarCO-B encountered challenges during the course maneuver. The problem is due to a leaky thruster valve that caused small trajectory changes. NASA engineers, however, are optimistic that the two CubeSats will make it to Mars.

Mars Cube One Mission

The satellites, the first deep space CubeSats, make up the Mars Cube One (MarCO) mission. If everything goes well, the CubeSats will fly by planet Mars on Nov. 26, the same day the stationary lander Insight is set to land.

The CubeSats will attempt to transmit information to Earth during InSight's entry, descent, and landing operations, albeit the satellites do not play a crucial role in the success of the Insight mission.

MarCO is a mission on its own and the satellites will navigate to Mars independent of Insight, with their own course adjustments on the way.

MarCO Mission Objectives

The main objective of the $18.5 million MarCO mission is to show that CubeSats, which are currently restricted to Earth's orbit are capable to explore interplanetary space.

"Our broadest goal was to demonstrate how low-cost CubeSat technology can be used in deep space for the first time," said John Baker, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "With both MarCOs on their way to Mars, we've already traveled farther than any CubeSat before them."

The satellites were not intended to collect science data but to test experimental CubeSat systems, which include the satellite's radios, attitude control and propulsion systems, and folding high-gain antenna that can prove new technologies in deep space.

"We're nervous but excited," said Joel Krajewski of JPL, MarCO's project manager. "A lot of work went into designing and testing these components so that they could survive the trip to Mars and relay data during InSight's landing. But our broader goal is to learn more about how to adapt CubeSat technologies for future deep-space missions."

If the mission succeeds, it could pave way for a "bring-your-own" communications relay option that can be used by future Mars missions during the so-called Seven Minutes of Terror.

NASA said that verifying CubeSats as a viable technology for interplanetary mission and feasible on a short development timeline could lead to other applications for exploring and studying the solar system.

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