NASA's two MarCO CubeSats will be flying past Mars in November 2018 just as NASA's next Mars lander, InSight, is descending through the Martian atmosphere and landing on the surface. MarCO, for Mars Cube One, will provide an experimental communications relay to inform Earth quickly about the landing.
This illustration depicts a moment during the lander's descent when it is transmitting data in the UHF radio band, and the twin MarCO craft are receiving those transmissions while simultaneously relaying the data to Earth in a different radio band. Each of the MarCO twins carries two solar panels for power, and both UHF-band and X-band radio antennas. As a technology demonstration, MarCO could lead to other "bring-your-own-relay" mission designs and also to use of miniature spacecraft for a wide diversity of interplanetary missions.
MarCO is the first interplanetary use of CubeSat technologies for small spacecraft. CubeSats are a class of spacecraft based on a standardized small size and modular use of off-the-shelf technologies to streamline development. Many have been made by university students, and dozens have been launched into Earth orbit using extra payload mass available on launches of larger spacecraft.
The two briefcase-size MarCO CubeSats will ride along with InSight on an Atlas V launch vehicle lifting off in March 2016 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. MarCO is a technology demonstration aspect of the InSight mission and not needed for that mission's success. InSight, an acronym for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, will investigate the deep interior of Mars to advance understanding of how rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved.
After launch, the MarCO twins and InSight will be navigated separately to Mars.
The MarCO and InSight projects are managed for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.