NASA’s InSight Mars lander is not traveling alone. Two small briefcase size spacecrafts, nicknamed “Wall-E” and “Eva” are hitching a ride as the first CubeSats to visit another planet.
A CubeSat is a miniatized satellite for space research made up of multiple cubic units. CubeSats became very popular in the 2000’s for applications such as communications, tracking shipping or performing Earth observation. Until now, all of them have stayed closed to our home planet.
The Mars twin CubeSats, officially called MarCO-A and B, flew on the same Atlas V rocket that sent InSight into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 4, 2018.
Serving as scouts, the CubeSats will have a front-row seat of the show. Theywill follow InSight on its interplanetary trajectory to Mars and attempt to track the larger spacecraft’s descent and landing on Mars in late November.
Both CubeSats have already phoned home shortly after their release, indicating that their solar panels are providing enough charge in their batteries to deploy their own solar arrays, stabilize themselves, pivot toward the Sun and turn on their radios.
Both MarCos use a compressed gas commonly found in fire extinguishers to push themselves through space, the same way Wall-E did.
In addition to charging their own batteries, the twins’ delicate electronics will also need to withstand bursts of radiation on their way to Mars.
If all goes according to plan, InSight will reach its destination in a little less than seven months. If the twins make it they will provide a welcome set of extra eyes as InSight tries to stick its landing on Mars.
This will be a crucial first test of CubeSat technology beyond Earth’s orbit, demonstrating how they could be used to further explore the solar system.