Two small MarCO (Mars Cube One) CubeSats that were piggybacked on the InSight Mars lander have successfully completed their primary objectives, according to NASA.
These experimental, briefcase-sized spacecraft were launched along with NASA's InSight lander in May and became the first small satellites to travel into deep space. They were sent in the mission to serve as communications relays for NASA's InSight spacecraft, which they successfully completed.
After arriving on Mars on 26 November, the twin satellites - nicknamed EVE (MarCO-A) and WALL-E (MarCO-B) - relayed information from the Insight lander during its descent to the Martian surface. MarCO-B also beamed back an image of Mars while flying about 6,000 kilometres above the surface of the Mars.
"WALL-E and EVE performed just as we expected them to," said MarCO chief engineer Andy Klesh of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which built the CubeSats.
"They were an excellent test of how CubeSats can serve as 'tag-alongs' on future missions, giving engineers up-to-the-minute feedback during a landing."
CubeSats are a type of spacecraft, much smaller in size compared to traditional, large spacecraft. In recent years, dozens of CubeSats have been launched into Earth's orbit by using spare payload mass available at the time of the launch of larger spacecraft.
According to NASA, twin CubeSats used their experimental radios and antennas to provide an alternate way for NASA scientists to keep an eye on InSight's landing. The signals that they sent took just eight minutes to travel from Mars to Earth. NASA's Mars orbiters, which were not appropriately positioned, would have taken much more time to send signals to Earth.
While the CubeSats have achieved their primary objectives, NASA scientists will continue to collect additional data on each CubeSat for next few weeks. NASA team will see how much fuel is left in each CubeSat and will also carry out a detailed analysis of relay capabilities.
According to NASA, the twin satellites, after skimming past Mars, will continue to orbit around the Sun. Scientists will also explore any possibility of using them to complete a fly-by of an asteroid. However, all these possibilities will depend on the health of the cubesats in interplanetary space.
In any case, NASA scientists can learn more from the ongoing journey of these tiny satellites.
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