The next spacecraft to land on Mars brings its communications team. Insight, a lander designed to touch the red planet on November 26, is accompanied by two spacecraft, the size of folders, that will send details of the Earth landing in real time.
The twinning task on this mission are CubeSats – tiny, cheap satellites that are easy to build and launch. Called Mars a single cube, or Marco in short, they would fly on Mars like Insight, making it the smallest spacecraft ever to be assigned a mission as vital as landing information. Now approaching Mars, they also have been the first CubeSats to make it so far from Earth. If everything goes well with InSight's landing, future Mars missions can also be equipped with one of their own team to use comms.
"A future in which marines and riders will bring their communications systems to land will be fantastic," says engineer Val Krajewski of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California and director of Marco's program.
InSight – short for face exploration using seismic investigations, geodesy and heat transport – will carry the first seismaster to Mars (C: 5/26/18, p. 13). After touching a wide flat plane called Elysium Planitia near the equator of Mars, the lander will remain completely still to listen to seismic waves and measure how the heat flows through the surface of the red planet. The results will help scientists understand how Mars, and possibly other rocky planets like Earth, formed about 4.5 billion years ago.
It will only be six and a half minutes between when InSight enters the Mars atmosphere, at a speed of nearly 1000 meters per second, as soon as its feet touch the ground. The spacecraft will use a parachute and ground-guided missiles to slow down to about 2.4 meters per second as it lands. The light speed signals of CubeSats or Insight itself will take about eight minutes to travel between Earth and Mars, so that when NASA engineers hear that InSight enters the atmosphere of Mars, the spacecraft will be on the ground.
"What's scary," says engineer Para Alibi, also from the jet propulsion lab. "Whether it landed quietly or pretty hard, we will not know, but we will know when you get the first data, Insight has landed."
Marco's Kubits will see InSight's descent to the surface of Mars (red line) and send details of the landing back to Earth before they continue to cross the planet.
For most of the previous landings of Mars, one of the major orbits around the Red Planet had to stop collecting data to watch the event and send details to Earth. This orbiter will be in the best position to observe Mars's Orbiter Mars mission, while it will not be able to transmit all the details to Earth for at least three hours, And blocking the media.
"Three to four hours is not much for most people, but it's pretty long for us," says Elibay. "Landing is the scariest part of your mission." Waiting to hear about the landing of the spacecraft is like waiting for news about the health of a loved one, she says.
To prevent the wait, the team sent the twin CubeSats. The spacecraft launched Insight, but it has been navigating through their deepest space since May. Marco's craft can change their routes by expelling compressed and compressed gas, similar to the way a fire extinguisher – which earned the nickname Wali and Eve in the group, after the image of the robot flies on Disney. "We have proved that CubeSat can leave the orbit of the Earth, survive the harsh environment of space and direct itself towards Mars," says Alibai.
About five minutes before InSight hits the upper part of the Martian atmosphere, both Marco's vessels will position themselves to track landing all the way to the ground, and send details back to Earth immediately. Everyone works independently, backing each other up.
If everything goes well, Marco can set a precedent for future Mars missions. Existing Mars orbits can support two Mars missions to be launched in 2020 – the NASA Mars Mars 2020 and the ExoMars run by the European Space Agency and the Russian Space Agency – but the future is dim.
"At the moment, there is no active program for a track beyond the timeframe," says Kravsky. In addition, existing Orbitters need to burn fuel to get to the right position to view other spacecraft, which shortens the lives of orbiters. Submitting a future craft with their own CubeSat team can help scientists track landings without compromising the great scientific tasks of orbiters.
After InSight lands, Marco's work will be done. The tiny craft does not have enough fuel or the right equipment to get into a long-range orbit around Mars. Instead, Marco will have a "wave of peace and take along", says Krajewski.
You can watch InSight landing online on a NASA TV.