The first CubeSats were launched in 2003 and in less than a decade more than 100 had orbited the Earth. The aerospace industry has debated whether the 2-15kg microsatellites are a fad, a toy, or a disruptive technology that will change the way we eventually observe and study Earth and the rest of the solar system. What is now beyond doubt, however, is that the first CubeSats went interplanetary.
On Saturday, after the launch of the InSight probe to Mars, NASA received signals from the Mars Cube One, or MarCO-A and -B satellites. The signals indicated that the twin spacecraft had retained enough charge in their batteries to install their own solar panels, stabilize themselves, turn to the sun and turn on their radios.
The two MarCO satellites aren’t critical to the InSight lander’s success — instead, they have their own separate mission to test the feasibility of CubeSats in deep space. They will follow InSight on its interplanetary trajectory to Mars and attempt to track the descent and landing of the larger spacecraft on Mars in November.
“We’re nervous but excited,” said Joel Krajewski of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and MarCO’s project manager. “A lot of work went into designing and testing these components so that they could survive the journey to Mars and relay data during InSight’s landing. But our broader goal is to learn more about how CubeSat technologies can be modified. for future deep-space missions.”
Scientists are eager to see how well the CubeSats work, as they have the potential to revolutionize the way we study the solar system. Larger satellites, weighing from hundreds of pounds to several tons, are more complex and cost exponentially more to build than CubeSats. With their much greater mass, they also need bigger, more powerful missiles to reach their intended targets — and they cost more, too.
If CubeSats can carry out significant amounts of science, they could be launched in swarms to planets in the outer solar system to gather intelligence. Plus, if one or two from that swarm failed, they’d be relatively inexpensive to replace.
In comparison, NASA is developing a six-ton ”Clipper” satellite that will be launched to Jupiter’s moon Europa as early as 2022. This mission costs a whopping $3 billion and includes eight different scientific instruments. If the MarCo satellites work on Mars, scientists will be able to start thinking about how much of that science could be done with smaller, much cheaper options.