The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is set to launch a stationary lander to Mars in 2016, and the mission will bring along two CubeSats, marking the first time that this tiny class of spacecraft is flown into deep space.
The CubeSats are part of a demonstration known as Mars Cube One (MarCO). The devices will be equipped with radio for receiving ultra-high frequency transmission as well as for sending and receiving X-band transmission.
MarCO was designed to demonstrate that cubseSats can function as a relay between the mission's primary aircraft, the InSight lander, and Earth. InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations.
Many CubeSats have already made it to missions above Earth, but next year's Mars mission will be the first time that these little satellites will journey into deep space off to another planet.
MarCO will be launched from California in March next year onboard the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that will also carry the InSight lander.
The mission will be NASA's first that will seek to understand Mars' interior structure. InSight is set to land on the surface of the Red Planet in September 2016, while MarCO will fly by the planet.
After launch, the two CubeSats will detach from the Atlas V booster and travel along their own trajectories to Mars. The first challenge for MarCO after release from the launch vehicle will be the deployment of two solar panels and two radio antennas.
NASA's planetary science division director Jim Green stressed that while MarCO has been added as an experimental capability to the InSight mission, it is not necessary for the mission's success. Nonetheless, a successful deployment could have valuable implications.
If the demonstration is successful, the technology will allow the U.S. space agency to have the capability to quickly transmit status information about the InSight lander after it lands on the Red Planet.
NASA said that CubeSats can beam back information about the landing of InSight on the surface of Mars faster compared with traditional methods.
"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," NASA said in a statement.