The Future Explorers Of Space Are The Size Of A Cereal Box

"There's big potential in these small packages."

The Future Explorers Of Space Are The Size Of A Cereal Box

When NASA's InSight spacecraft landed on Mars in November, it was being flanked by two satellites that were overseeing its trip.

MarCO A and MarCO B, known as CubeSats, are about the size — or smaller — of a cereal box. NASA says a typical CubeSat often measures about four inches on each side and weighs less than three pounds. But their success in transmitting data back to earth as they circled Mars and monitored InSight's landing was a major breakthrough for NASA and space exploration. 

The satellites are quite common, according to The New York Times. "Constellations" of them orbit the earth and are "used by scientists, private companies, high school students and even governments." What's not common is one of the CubeSats traveling (and surviving) a 90 million mile trip into space. 

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The Times reported this week that MarCO A and MarCO B successfully transmitted so much data from InSight back to earth — about 97 percent of all the data — it has inspired scientists to start thinking about using the satellites to explore the far reaches of space. One obvious advantage is the size of the CubeSats, which makes them cheaper than a larger spacecraft. But even the makeup for the CubeSat sounds almost rudimentary by NASA's standards: they run on solar power, fire extinguisher fluid, use off-the-shelf cameras and have a radio that's a lot like an iPhone, according to The Times. 

In its budget proposal released last week, NASA made it clear that it was going to find new ways to send CubeSats into deep space. The budget proposal calls for "at least 13 deep space CubeSat missions, including 7 to the moon." CubeSats can be built in two years, NASA says, which lowers the risk of sending them into space to experiment with how far they can travel and transmit data.

"When we have big spacecraft, you don't want to necessarily take it into a very risky situation," John Baker, manager of the SmallSat program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. told The Times. "But you can take an inexpensive probe and send it down to search or to get up close to something and examine it."

The MarCOs went further than any CubeSat ever with experimental technology, according to NASA. But now that their mission is complete, and was done with just $18.5 million (a relatively cheap investment for the return), NASA is thinking about ways to push the limits. Both MarCO A and MarCO B have lost connection with earth, but NASA projects that they are 1 million and 2 million miles past Mars, respectively. 

There are several future CubeSat missions detailed on NASA's website, including CUVE, which would travel to Venus, and Lunar Flashlight, which would use lasers to search for water ice on the south pole of the Moon. 

"There's big potential in these small packages," Baker said on NASA's website. "CubeSats — part of a larger group of spacecraft called SmallSats — are a new platform for space exploration affordable to more than just government agencies."

Cover image via NASA/JPL-Caltech.

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