2016.B.3.1. Mars Cube One Interplanetary Propulsion System


Joseph Cardin (1)
John Essmiller (2)
Andrew Klesh (2)

  1. VACCO Industries, United States of America
  2. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, United States of America




Propulsion, Cold Gas, Interplanetary, CubeSat


When NASA launches its next mission to Mars – a stationary lander called InSight – the flight will include twin communications-relay CubeSats called Mars Cube One (MarCO) built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. During InSight’s entry, descent and landing (EDL) operations, the lander will transmit information in the UHF radio band to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) flying overhead. Unfortunately, confirmation of a successful landing could be received by the orbiter more than an hour before it can be relayed to Earth.  MarCO’s 1U radio provides both UHF (receive only) and X-band (receive and transmit) functions allowing immediately relaying information received over UHF.

The two 6U MarCO CubeSats will independently separate from the Atlas V booster after launch and travel along their own trajectories to the Red Planet. To accomplish this, each CubeSat contains an integral Micro Propulsion System (MiPS) designed, built and tested by VACCO Industries of South El Monte, California.  After release from the launch vehicle, MarCO’s first challenge will be to cancel tip-off accelerations and stabilize using its eight MiPS cold gas thrusters.  MarCO will navigate to Mars independently of the InSight spacecraft, using its MiPS to put it on a fly-by trajectory and make course adjustments and unloading reaction wheels along the way.

The specific subject of this presentation is MarCO’s advanced Micro Propulsion System.  Unlike conventional space systems, low-cost CubeSat systems are not held to the same requirements and formal qualification. Striking the appropriate balance between these conflicting forces was a key goal of this path-finding program.  A design overview will be presented describing MiPS function and capabilities.  Test data will be reviewed and lessons-learned discussed.

This will be the first time CubeSats have flown in deep space creating unique propulsion system demands. Ultimately, 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 as well as the ability to quickly transmit status information about the main spacecraft after it lands on Mars.


  • Will be made available for download after the workshop

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