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The MarCo cubesat success

Mars as seen by MarCo-B

The two MarCO cubesats that successfully relayed data from InSight to Earth during its landing yesterday continue to function, with one even sending back images. The photo on the right, cropped and reduced slightly to post here, was taken by MarCo-B.

Neither of the MarCO CubeSats carry science instruments, but that didn’t stop the team from testing whether future CubeSats could perform useful science at Mars. As MarCO-A flew by, it conducted some impromptu radio science, transmitting signals through the edge of Mars’ atmosphere. Interference from the Martian atmosphere changes the signal when received on Earth, allowing scientists to determine how much atmosphere is present and, to some degree, what it’s made of.

“CubeSats have incredible potential to carry cameras and science instruments out to deep space,” said John Baker, JPL’s program manager for small spacecraft. “They’ll never replace the more capable spacecraft NASA is best known for developing. But they’re low-cost ride-alongs that can allow us to explore in new ways.”

As a bonus, some consumer-grade cameras aboard MarCO provided “drive-by” images as the CubeSats sailed past Mars. MarCO-B was programmed to turn so that it could image the planet in a sequence of shots as it approached Mars (before launch, MarCO-A’s cameras were found to be either non-functioning or too blurry to use).

This engineering test proves that we don’t need to build billion dollar spacecraft every time we wish to send an unmanned scouting ship to another world. Cubesats will soon do the job quite well, and for a tenth the cost.

And there will be a lot of money to be made. Governments and private entities of all types will be eager to buy the services of the garage-built planetary cubesats that private companies are going to soon be building, in large numbers.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.

4 comments

  • Robert Pratt

    I like the idea of cheap cubesat swarms, highly redundant, for basic missions to just about every where.

  • Joe

    Just wait until we get these down to PocketQube size and cost. Imagine a constellation of satellites constantly monitoring any planet or moon we so choose to study.

  • pzatchok

    The main problem is the small size.

    It limits the power available onboard. Power for transmission communications especially.
    Sort of like your cell phone. It can sit there and receive for a week but transmit for just a few short hours. And that is only transmitting a few miles. And that is only in short data packets to save power.

  • Edward

    pzatchok wrote: “The main problem is the small size. It limits the power available onboard.

    I find this to be more of an advantage than problem. It means that no one will try to overload the cubesat with too many other instruments. Each additional item adds complexity to the entire system, and overcoming the complexity is one reason why large satellites are so expensive to design, build, and test.

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