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CubeSats Deliver at Mars

I never saw the 2008 film WALL·E, which was all the rage not long after its release. A computer animated science fiction movie, WALL·E won a slew of awards including a Golden Globe for best animated feature, a Nebula for best script, and an Academy Award, as well as making Time’s list of best movies of the decade. Bringing it to mind this morning, though, is the recent success of the InSight mission at landing on Mars, and the support technologies that flew with it.

Thus the image below, which in its own way is iconic. It’s from a craft nicknamed WALL·E after the star of the film, a CubeSat no larger than a briefcase that flew all the way to Mars in a seven month journey that demonstrated what miniaturized technologies can do. WALL·E is formally known as MARCO-B, the partner to MARCO-A (nicknamed EVE, another star of the film).

Both these craft proved successful at their mission, which was to offer Earthside engineers the opportunity to monitor the InSight landing in ways that hadn’t been attempted before. The CubeSats relayed information during the harried minutes of InSight’s descent and touchdown, returning data to the landing team in the time it took radio signals to travel between Earth and Mars. That was an improvement over using Mars orbiters to do the job, as these weren’t positioned to observe the entire landing sequence and get information quickly back to Earth.

“WALL-E and EVE performed just as we expected them to,” said MarCO chief engineer Andy Klesh of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, 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.”

Image: MarCO-B, one of the experimental Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats, took this image of Mars from about 7,600 kilometers (4,700 miles) away during its flyby of the Red Planet on Nov. 26, 2018. MarCO-B was flying by Mars with its twin, MarCO-A, to attempt to serve as communications relays for NASA’s InSight spacecraft as it landed on Mars. This image was taken at about 12:10 p.m. PST (3:10 p.m. EST) while MarCO-B was flying away from the planet after InSight landed. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Not everything went smoothly aboard the CubeSats. While MARCO-B was able to image Mars in a sequence of shots, similar imagery from MARCO-A fell victim to camera problems. In keeping with a key advantage of CubeSats, their low cost of assembly, the imagery we do see came from consumer-grade cameras, and the cause of failure on MARCO-A isn’t yet known. But MARCO-B obviously succeeded and we may have further photos in the pipeline.

Meanwhile, an unusually young team of spacecraft designers can take pride in their accomplishment:

“MarCO is mostly made up of early-career engineers and, for many, MarCO is their first experience out of college on a NASA mission,” said Joel Krajewski of JPL, MarCO’s project manager. “We are proud of their accomplishment. It’s given them valuable experience on every facet of building, testing and operating a spacecraft in deep space.”

The point of the photo above isn’t that CubeSats are ready to replace larger, more capable spacecraft. Rather, it’s the fact that in this early assignment in a mission-supporting role, the diminutive craft have proven their worth. As trends in miniaturization continue, we can look forward to putting more functionality into smaller packages, which means increasingly sophisticated payloads with lowering costs for instrumentation and launch.

Coupling CubeSat technologies with solar sails is something we’re learning how to do, and we can now anticipate The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2. We’re shaking out new technologies all around, and as we apply the lessons learned in these missions, we can look forward to a future in which small craft operating in swarm fashion, perhaps driven by solar sails, investigate the outer planets in support of larger spacecraft. Previous paradigms of size and cost will adjust accordingly.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • David S. F. Portree November 28, 2018, 16:36


    The success of the MARCO cubesats has me wondering again whether commercial space will be forced to adapt to flying only small payloads. That would seem to call into question profitability models. Is big, reusable rocket commercial space headed the way of the hydrogen dirigible and the ocean liner? They enjoyed considerable popularity, but it didn’t save them except for niche applications.

    Cubesats – especially if they are to be launched in a way responsive to user needs, not collected in a big pile and flown all at once – seem to call for small rockets, which can inherently be manufactured cheaply without the complications of reusability. Furthermore, as little robots become increasingly capable, the likelihood that humans will travel through space seems to decrease. That’s because it’s costly and no one agrees on what it is for. It pains me to say that.

    At the same time, though, I can imagine a world with hundreds of cubesat launch sites across the world at universities and research institutes. That’s a pretty exciting idea, too.


    • Paul Gilster November 28, 2018, 17:32

      Thanks, David. I don’t see the trend toward smaller vehicles working against human space travel, though who can predict all the many factors involved here. To me, though, supplementing larger craft with a host of small, highly-targeted helpers makes sense for both robotic and human missions. A world of CubeSat launches from research institutions all over the place is indeed exciting, as you point out.

    • Charley November 28, 2018, 17:47

      “the likelihood that humans will travel through space seems to decrease. …” Yes I agree thoroughly that the possibility of humans in space is a losing game. Just the fact that we require so much maintenance in real life seems to negate any advantage for us to be there.

      The advantage that machines hold and the reason why I think they would predominate in space travel would be for the reason of off world mining of valuable minerals which may become in short supply year due to our populations in the station will desire for manufactured goods, which would seem to only increase in time.

      • ljk November 29, 2018, 10:07

        Either that or we bioengineer design humans who can live and work in space with minimum needs.

        We already modify our bodies and minds in countless ways, this is just taking it to the next level.

    • Alex Tolley November 29, 2018, 13:37

      (…) seem to call for small rockets, which can inherently be manufactured cheaply without the complications of reusability.

      If you look at the launch cost to orbit of these small rockets, they are very high on a per mass basis. Cubesats are cheap, but that doesn’t help if it costs 10s of thousands of dollars per kilo to reach orbit. Large rockets offer scaling advantages, and we think we have a handle on the cost reduction using reusable vehicles. Reusable rockets may not work quite the same way as commercial airliners, but we know that large, passenger-carrying jets can reduce ticket costs compared to smaller airplanes.

      The dirigible age ended because airplanes offer cheaper ticket costs. This is because the faster vehicle can make many more fare-paying trips that more than offsets the higher construction costs. It is why dirigibles, despite their charm, will never make any significant commercial return, despite enthusiasts claims. Similarly, sailing ships can no longer compete with large, “steamships” for transport, especially of goods.

      There is likely to be a role for both large and small rockets in the future, depending on requirements. The range of sizes for space craft will likely dwarf the range of rocket sizes, just as structures and machines on Earth have many more oders of size range than transportation technologies.

  • Charley November 28, 2018, 17:24

    I find it rather amazing Mr. Gilster that you failed to never see the
    2008 film WALL·E, which was the rage. I found it to be a rather cute little film in which the boy robot WALL·E later began to develop a love interest with a girl robot named EVE , who just happened to be on her own particular mission to a garbage filled Earth, which is what Earth had turned into and that the human race had abandoned, and that WALL·E was assigned to monitor.

    You knew EVE was a girl robot because first off, she was not impressed whatsoever by WALL·E , secondly, she had big beautiful eyelashes, and then finally in most typical female fashion when WALL·E had come across the sole living plant that was starting to poke out of the soil, EVE became like so many females totally fixated on the living plant found on the garbage filled Earth and she became totally nonresponsive to WALL·E’s amorous (so to speak) attempts to woo her. Typical female in every response !!

    More disturbing (and unfortunately far more telling) was the need for two robots to go to the fully automated spaceship that house the entire human race waiting for a chance to find a new home somewhere. The disturbing aspect of it was the fact that the entire human race was enormously obese! And was completely and totally dependent upon the machines to help them, and all they did was fixate upon what their next meal would be-kind of like what we’re seeing today. So you see the future is not completely about satellites and moons, unless you are talking about what may be the other kind of MASSIVE BODIES that are destined to be seen in our unfortunate future.

    • Paul Gilster November 28, 2018, 17:32

      Yes, I’m surprised I didn’t catch it at the time too. Will have to make up for this.

      • ljk November 29, 2018, 10:16

        WALL-E introduced many, probably for the first time, to the concept of multigenerational starships (are we “officially” calling them WorldShips now? I just want to be on top of the matter).

        A bit oversimplified in part because children are part of the audience equation, but the film still makes you think about what might happen to humans if they are essentially spending generations on a luxury cruise liner.

        Their world is the opposite of what happens in Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, but there are still consequences to being in an enclosed environment, even one – or because of – where all basic human needs are met.

        Are humans meant to be in space? Not without some real modifications, in my opinion. This includes being on alien worlds, where the chances that any of them are just like Earth are problematic.

  • jonW November 29, 2018, 9:41

    Off topic, but: could someone chime in on this recent Kurzgesagt video explaining the problem of orbital debris? I was aware of the issue before, but this video makes it sound really pretty dire (see the video’s title: “The End of Space Travel: Creating a Prison for Humanity”, which is obviously intended for dramatic effect). I wonder if the space travel community feels the threat is overblown in a presentation like this? The way it’s presented here makes it seem inevitable that at some point in the next few decades this catastrophic chain reaction will occur, and the technologies suggested for “clean up” are not exactly reassuring.


    • ljk November 29, 2018, 12:41

      If it is anything like the anti-space film Gravity, then yes. Of course there is a certain amount of danger from space debris, and satellites have been hit, but the threat is overblown in certain quarters.

      If anything the problem should be lessening as space companies and governments are much more aware of the issue and have taken steps to reduce orbital debris. But it doesn’t look anything like WALL-E nor will it unless we start launching satellites on a massive scale – which would not make sense not only due to cost and resources, but also because that many satellites would start smashing into each other.

      • andy November 29, 2018, 15:59

        “the anti-needlessly-blowing-up-satellites-with-missile-tests-in-space film Gravity”

        fixed it for you.

        • Ljk November 30, 2018, 0:59

          Oh no, Gravity is definitely not a pro space exploration film. Right off the bat they list how bad and dangerous space is. It went downhill from there.

    • Alex Tolley December 1, 2018, 14:15

      This animation is basically about the Kessler Syndrome. It also shows ways that are being suggested to clean up the junk to prevent it. It is certainly not “anti-space”, quite the contrary, it seems to be quite optimistic that such clean up is possible and will be implemented.

  • Dmitry Novoseltsev November 30, 2018, 12:35

    In this context, seem to me more interesting spacecrafts in format AttoSat (https://i4is.org/the-attosat-manifesto/).
    As all know, with a decrease in the linear dimensions of their mass will vary in the third degree, and the surface area – only in the second, which increases their windage. Small descent vehicles of this type, equipped with blades (which can also serve as solar panels to power the equipment), could make a long planning flight on autorotation, as maple seeds, in the atmospheres of Mars, Titan, the upper atmosphere of Venus and giant planets. A swarm of such simple and cheap vehicles could cover a large area, transmitting data to the command orbiter, then transmitting them to Earth.