When NASA's InSight lander settles itself on the surface of Mars next year, a pair of tiny experimental satellites will be nearby to relay the action - in real time - back to Earth.
The project, spearheaded by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., will mark the first time CubeSats travel in deep space.
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CubeSats are standard 4- by 4- by 4-inch cubes that can be customized for a wide array of space missions. For the Mars Cube One project, engineers are building a pair of six-unit, radiation-hardened CubeSats, each outfitted with a softball-sized radio that can collect and transmit signals simultaneously. Only one satellite is needed for the mission, with the second flying as a spare.
Mars Cube One will supplement the communications relay from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which cannot simultaneously receive radio data from InSight in one frequency and transmit signals back to Earth on another.
Using Mars Cube One should speed up confirmation of a successful landing by more than an hour, NASA said.
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The pair of CubeSats will piggyback rides on the Atlas 5 rocket that is scheduled to launch InSight in March. The lander, due to arrive in September 2016, is designed to collect data about the interior of Mars.
Mars Cube One will separate from the Atlas rocket and fly themselves to Mars, passing by just as InSight makes its descent through the planet's atmosphere and touches down.
If the demonstration is successful, future Mars spacecraft could carry along their own communications relays, NASA said in a press release.
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The U.S. space agency also is planning to launch an interplanetary nanosatellite pathfinder mission, called INSPIRE, in 2017 to test communications and other technologies needed for deep space missions.
NASA also is working on a pair of CubeSat science missions slated to fly in 2018. The Lunar Flashlight satellite will map the moon's south pole for water and other volatiles; the Near Earth Asteroid Scout, which will use a solar sail to fly to an asteroid.