Category Archives: CubeSats

What is a CubeSat?

I think CubeSats are brilliant, so much opportunity not the least of which is the many educational layers potentially involved.

Video: Canadian Space Agency

MarCo Evaluation

The mission team and builders of the MarCO cubesates nicknamed EVE and WALL-E must be very pleased on the performance of the pair now that it is pretty much said and done. Oh there is a very slight chance of communications recovery I suppose, but it’s very doubtful. Nevertheless, a great demonstration of what these small sats are capable of and we will be seeing more from the technology in the future – no doubt about it.

NASA — Before the pair of briefcase-sized spacecraft known collectively as MarCO launched last year, their success was measured by survival: If they were able to operate in deep space at all, they would be pushing the limits of experimental technology.

Now well past Mars, the daring twins seem to have reached their limit. It’s been over a month since engineers have heard from MarCO, which followed NASA’s InSight to the Red Planet. At this time, the mission team considers it unlikely they’ll be heard from again.

MarCO, short for Mars Cube One, was the first interplanetary mission to use a class of mini-spacecraft called CubeSats. The MarCOs — nicknamed EVE and WALL-E, after characters from a Pixar film — served as communications relays during InSight’s landing, beaming back data at each stage of its descent to the Martian surface in near-real time, along with InSight’s first image. WALL-E sent back stunning images of Mars as well, while EVE performed some simple radio science.

All of this was achieved with experimental technology that cost a fraction of what most space missions do: $18.5 million provided by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which built the CubeSats.

WALL-E was last heard from on Dec. 29; EVE, on Jan. 4. Based on trajectory calculations, WALL-E is currently more than 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) past Mars; EVE is farther, almost 2 million miles (3.2 million kilometers) past Mars.

The mission team has several theories for why they haven’t been able to contact the pair. WALL-E has a leaky thruster. Attitude-control issues could be causing them to wobble and lose the ability to send and receive commands. The brightness sensors that allow the CubeSats to stay pointed at the Sun and recharge their batteries could be another factor. The MarCOs are in orbit around the Sun and will only get farther away as February wears on. The farther they are, the more precisely they need to point their antennas to communicate with Earth.

The MarCOs won’t start moving toward the Sun again until this summer. The team will reattempt to contact the CubeSats at that time, though it’s anyone’s guess whether their batteries and other parts will last that long.

Even if they’re never revived, the team considers MarCO a spectacular success.

“This mission was always about pushing the limits of miniaturized technology and seeing just how far it could take us,” said Andy Klesh, the mission’s chief engineer at JPL. “We’ve put a stake in the ground. Future CubeSats might go even farther.”

A number of the critical spare parts for each MarCO will be used in other CubeSat missions. That includes their experimental radios, antennas and propulsion systems. Several of these systems were provided by commercial vendors, making it easier for other CubeSats to use them as well.

More small spacecraft are on the way. NASA is set to launch a variety of new CubeSats in coming years.

“There’s big potential in these small packages,” said John Baker, the MarCO program manager at JPL. “CubeSats — part of a larger group of spacecraft called SmallSats — are a new platform for space exploration that is affordable to more than just government agencies.”

Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Rocket Lab Launches CubeSats

Rocket Lab makes history with this launch of CubeSats, including one by students atop an Electron rocket. Great job and it looks like the future is bright for Rocket Lab. By the way, the launch is at about the 18 minute mark so you may want to fast-forward.

NASA: A series of new CubeSats now are in space, conducting a variety of scientific investigations and technology demonstrations, following launch Sunday of Rocket Lab’s first mission for NASA under a Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) contract.

An Electron rocket lifted off at 1:33 a.m. EST (7:33 p.m. NZDT) from the company’s launch complex on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, marking the first time CubeSats have launched for NASA on a rocket designed specifically for small payloads.

“With the VCLS effort, NASA has successfully advanced the commercial launch service choices for smaller payloads, providing viable dedicated small launch options as an alternative to the rideshare approach,” said Jim Norman, director of Launch Services at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This first mission is opening the door for future launch options.”

At the time of the VCLS award in 2015, launch opportunities for small satellites and science missions were limited to ridesharing – flying only when space was available on other missions. Managed by NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, VCLS awards are designed to foster a commercial market where SmallSats and CubeSats could be placed in orbits to get the best science return.

This mission includes 10 Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa)-19 payloads, selected by NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative. The initiative is designed to enhance technology development and student involvement. These payloads will provide information and demonstrations in the following areas:

“Low cost launch services to enable expanded science from smaller satellites are now a reality.  NASA’s Earth Venture program and indeed our entire integrated, Earth-observing mission portfolio will benefit greatly from the ability to launch small satellites into optimal orbits, when and where we want them,” said Dr. Michael Freilich, Director of Earth Science at NASA Headquarters in Washington.  “Our partnership with LSP on the VCLS effort is helping both NASA and the commercial launch sector.”

CubeSats are small satellites built in standard units of 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm, or in configurations of two, three or six units. These small satellites play a valuable role in the agency’s exploration, technology, educational, and science investigations, including planetary exploration, Earth observation, and fundamental Earth and space science. They are a cornerstone in the development of cutting-edge NASA technologies like laser communications, satellite-to-satellite communications and autonomous movement.

NASA will continue to offer CubeSats an opportunity to hitch a ride on primary missions in order to provide opportunities to accomplish mission objectives, and expects to announce the next round of CubeSats for future launches in February 2019.

Leaving Mars – Fairwell MarCO’s

Another successful aspect of InSight mission was the two tiny cubesats MarCO’s A and B. The pair accompanied InSight on the journey to Mars and demonstrated their ability to act as communications relays.

The success of the MarCO satellites probably will ensured a bright future for such satellites in future mission. Well done!

NASA: MarCO-B, one of the experimental Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats, took this image of Mars from about 4,700 miles (6,000 kilometers) 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.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars Seen by Wall-E

MarCO-B (Wall-E) one of the two CubeSats traveling along with the Insight Mars lander has taken its first picture of Mars.

Click the image above for a larger view and click here for an annotated view. Images: NASA/JPL-CalTech.

Here’s NASA’s press release:
NASA’s MarCO mission was designed to find out if briefcase-sized spacecraft called CubeSats could survive the journey to deep space. Now, MarCO – which stands for Mars Cube One – has Mars in sight.

One of the twin MarCO CubeSats snapped this image of Mars on Oct. 3 – the first image of the Red Planet ever produced by this class of tiny, low-cost spacecraft. The two CubeSats are officially called MarCO-A and MarCO-B but nicknamed “EVE” and “Wall-E” by their engineering team.

A wide-angle camera on top of MarCO-B produced the image as a test of exposure settings. The MarCO mission, led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, hopes to produce more images as the CubeSats approach Mars ahead of Nov. 26. That’s when they’ll demonstrate their communications capabilities while NASA’s InSight spacecraft attempts to land on the Red Planet. (The InSight mission won’t rely on them, however; NASA’s Mars orbiters will be relaying the spacecraft’s data back to Earth.)

This image was taken from a distance of roughly 8 million miles (12.8 million kilometers) from Mars. The MarCOs are “chasing” Mars, which is a moving target as it orbits the Sun. In order to be in place for InSight’s landing, the CubeSats have to travel roughly 53 million miles (85 million kilometers). They have already traveled 248 million miles (399 million kilometers).

MarCO-B’s wide-angle camera looks straight out from the deck of the CubeSat. Parts related to the spacecraft’s high-gain antenna are visible on either side of the image. Mars appears as a small red dot at the right of the image.
To take the image, the MarCO team had to program the CubeSat to rotate in space so that the deck of its boxy “body” was pointing at Mars. After several test images, they were excited to see that clear, red pinprick.

“We’ve been waiting six months to get to Mars,” said Cody Colley, MarCO’s mission manager at JPL. “The cruise phase of the mission is always difficult, so you take all the small wins when they come. Finally seeing the planet is definitely a big win for the team.”

For more information about MarCO, visit:

https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/cubesat/missions/marco.php

Cube Sat Data

The future of CubeSats is very bright as we all know. We are beginning to see public data releases.

Original caption: The first data from RainCube, a tiny weather satellite. RainCube is a prototype for a possible fleet of future small satellite missions that can track precipitation from space. RainCube “sees” objects by using radar, much as a bat uses sonar. The satellite’s umbrella — like antenna sends out chirps, or specialized radar signals, that bounce off raindrops, bringing back a picture of what the inside of the storm looks like.

This graph shows a storm over the mountains in Mexico in late August 2018, as measured by RainCube’s radar. The data shows a vertical snapshot of the storm — the bright white line shows the ground, while the bright colors around it show the intensity of the rainfall, as well as the more reflective areas of the terrain. Brighter colors, like yellow or red, show areas of higher reflectivity, e.g. heavier rain.

For more information about CubeSat see www.jpl.nasa.gov/cubesat/.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

CubeSat Plasma Thruster

Nice, it was only a matter of time.

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.

First Light For MarCO (B)

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

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech