Trailblazing MarCO Satellites Fire Up Their Thrusters And Adjust Course To Mars

NASA JPL

In case you were wondering what’s been going on with NASA’s pioneering CubeSats that went off to Mars along with the InSight mission, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, has an update on their journey.

JPL built the twin satellites, dubbed Mars Cube One, or MarCO for short, and has been keeping us posted on their progress ever since the briefcase-sized spacecraft blasted off into space on May 5.

According to JPL, the MarCO satellites have just completed their first trajectory correction maneuver, after acing a series of communication tests over the past two weeks.

During this procedure, the twin CubeSats fired their compressed gas propulsion systems — which, as the Inquisitr previously reported, earned them the nicknames of “Wall-E” and “Eva,” after the beloved characters in the 2008 Pixar animation — and adjusted their course to Mars.

In doing so, the twin MarCO satellites have become the first CubeSats to complete a trajectory correction maneuver, pushing CubeSat technology to new heights.

Such trajectory adjusting operations are necessary for any spacecraft that needs to set its course and steer toward its destination. Until they reach Mars, the two CubeSats will have to fire up their thrusters several more times in order to guide themselves to the Red Planet.

The InSight Mars lander that launched together with the MarCO satellites underwent the same trajectory correction maneuver on May 22, the Inquisitr reported at the time.

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When you send novel demonstration technology into space in order to see what happens, you’re bound to end up with a few surprises. That’s exactly what happened during the CubeSats’ trajectory correction maneuver, notes JPL.

One of the intrepid spacecraft, MarCO-A, also known as “Eva,” managed to perform the procedure “relatively smoothly,” stated JPL officials. Meanwhile, MarCO-B, or “Wall-E” as it were, ran into a bit of a snag.

The CubeSat had to face “some unexpected challenges” due to a leaky thruster valve, which made the satellite’s trajectory correction maneuver not be on par with that of its twin. As a result, the satellite’s maneuver was smaller and left the spacecraft trailing behind its two companions. Before “Wall-E” can join “Eva” and the InSight Mars lander on the same course, the MarCO team will spend several more weeks monitoring the issue to decide on the size of follow-on maneuvers.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that MarCO-B can follow MarCO-A,” said Joel Krajewski, MarCO’s project manager at JPL. “But we wanted to take more time to understand the underlying issues before attempting the next course-correction maneuver.”

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The MarCO twin satellites and the InSight Mars lander are expected to reach Mars on November 26. The CubeSats’ mission is to follow the lander along and relay data on its entry, descent, and landing sequence.

However, JPL explains that their primary goal is to be a demonstration technology, just like the “Marscopter” that NASA plans to send on the Mars2020 mission, as reported last month by the Inquisitr.

“Our broadest goal was to demonstrate how low-cost CubeSat technology can be used in deep space for the first time,” said John Baker, program manager for planetary SmallSats at JPL.

“With both MarCOs on their way to Mars, we’ve already traveled farther than any CubeSat before them,” Baker pointed out.