ESA: This micro-pulsed plasma thruster has been designed for propulsion of miniature CubeSats; its first firing is seen here. The thruster works by pulsing a lightning-like electric arc between two electrodes. This vaporizes the thruster propellant into charged plasma, which is then accelerated in the electromagnetic field set up between the electrodes.
Developed for ESA by Mars Space Ltd and Clyde Space of the UK with Southampton University, this 2 Watt, 42 Newton-second impulse plasma thruster has been qualified for space, with more than a million firing pulses demonstrated during testing.
It has been designed for a range of uses, including drag compensation in low orbits, orbit maintenance, formation flying and small orbit transfers. The thruster could also serve as a CubeSat deorbiting device, gradually reducing orbital altitude until atmospheric re-entry is achieved.
About the size of a DVD reader, the thruster weighs just 280 grams including its propellant load and drive electronics.
The Mars InSight lander was launched on 05 May 2018 on a course that ultimately put it on the surface of the planet. When the InSight spacecraft was launched it also had two CubeSats along for the journey.
The CubeSats – collectively named Mars Cube One – are known by MarCO A & B. In the case of MarCO-B it also known as Wall-E to the MarCO team.
The CubeSats are pioneering the path to Mars and the mission will be one of many “firsts”.
“NASA set a new distance record for CubeSats on May 8 when a pair of CubeSats called Mars Cube One (MarCO) reached 621,371 miles (1 million kilometers) from EarthToday we have a first, a look back at the Earth and Moon from MarCO-B, the CubeSat’s Pale Blue Dot.” — NASA
They CubeSats are in for a great mission once they get to Mars. They will be testing their ability to be used as communications relays, they should fit the bill perfectly. Time will tell being a ham radio operator I am pulling for them.
“Mars landings are notoriously challenging due to the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere. The MarCO CubeSats will follow along behind InSight during its cruise to Mars. Should they make it all the way to Mars, they will radio back data about InSight while it enters the atmosphere and descends to the planet’s surface. The high-gain antennas are key to that effort; the MarCO team have early confirmation that the antennas have successfully deployed, but will continue to test them in the weeks ahead.
InSight won’t rely on the MarCO mission for data relay. That job will fall to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. But the MarCOs could be a pathfinder so that future missions can “bring their own relay” to Mars. They could also demonstrate a number of experimental technologies, including their antennas, radios and propulsion systems, which will allow CubeSats to collect science in the future.” — NASA
Four NASA-sponsored CubeSats and a NASA-funded CubeSat, were among thirteen small spacecraft launched from Southern California’s Vandenburg Air Force Base on Oct. 8.
The NASA-funded device will test how accurately a CubeSat can be pointed during high speed data transfer by laser. The NASA-sponsored CubeSats will test new control and communications systems, Earth observations, amateur radio communications and an X-Band radio science transponder.