WASHINGTON Xinhua) -- U.S. space agency NASA said Friday that its next Mars landing mission in 2016 will include two CubeSats, the first time such tiny satellites have been deployed in deep space.
Known as Mars Cube One, or MarCO, the CubeSats will fly by Mars while InSight, NASA's next Mars lander, descends to the Martian surface in September 2016, NASA said.
"If this flyby demonstration is successful, the technology will provide NASA the ability to quickly transmit status information about the main spacecraft after it lands on Mars," the space agency said in a statement.
The basic CubeSat unit is a box roughly 4 inches (10 centimeters) square, but the MarCO's design is a six-unit CubeSat, with a stowed size of about 14.4 inches (36.6 centimeters) by 9.5 inches (24.3 centimeters) by 4.6 inches (11.8 centimeters).
The InSight lander and MarCO CubeSats will be launched by an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in March 2016. After launch, the two CubeSats will separate from the Atlas V booster and travel along their own trajectories to the Red Planet.
"MarCO is an experimental capability that has been added to the InSight mission, but is not needed for mission success," said Jim Green, director of NASA's planetary science division. "MarCO will fly independently to Mars."
According to NASA, during InSight's entry, descent and landing operations, the lander will transmit data to NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which is now orbiting the planet. But the MRO cannot receive and transmit information simultaneously, resulting in a delay of about one hour in sending back to Earth status information about the Mars lander.
Such problems, however, don't exist for the MarCO CubeSats, which are capable of immediately relaying information once receiving it from the lander.
"If the MarCO demonstration mission succeeds, it could allow for a 'bring-your-own' communications relay option for use by future Mars missions in the critical few minutes between Martian atmospheric entry and touchdown," NASA said.
"By verifying CubeSats are a viable technology for interplanetary missions, and feasible on a short development timeline, this technology demonstration could lead to many other applications to explore and study our solar system."