Farewell to Mars

MarCo cubesat image of Mars

November 26, 2018

MarCO-B, one of the experimental Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats, took this image of Mars from about 4,700 miles (6,000 kilometers) away during its flyby of the Red Planet on Nov. 26, 2018. MarCO-B was flying by Mars with its twin, MarCO-A, to attempt to serve as communications relays for NASA’s InSight spacecraft as it landed on Mars. This image was taken at about 12:10 p.m. PST (3:10 p.m. EST) while MarCO-B was flying away from the planet after InSight landed.

I know the MarCO CubeSats had traveled through 7-months-long deep space journey all the way along with InSight probe to Mars. They both relay data and monitor throughout InSight's EDL procedures then transmit data back to Earth. However with the reference above, why MarCO-B was flying away from the planet after landing? I thought the two CubeSats would keep sticking to the orbit as InSight's company for the two-years-long mission? What would happens to MarCO-A in latter as well?

  • $\begingroup$ I hope you don't mind that I added the actual image. This is a pretty historic item! Feel free to edit or adjust further. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Nov 27 '18 at 2:52
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh Definitely one of the most breathtaking image. I saw it on JPL's IG of course I wouldn't mind it. $\endgroup$ – not_Prince Nov 27 '18 at 3:29
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    $\begingroup$ You can see the camera that took this image in this answer $\endgroup$ – uhoh Nov 27 '18 at 3:47

Neither the MarCO satellites nor InSight itself had the ability to enter Martian orbit - the interplanetary approach to Mars is quite fast, and it takes a lot of fuel to slow down enough for Mars' gravity to capture a probe. InSight itself used Mars's atmosphere to slow itself down, but the MarCO satellites had neither heat shields nor significant maneuvering capacity, so they had no way to stop.

MarCO wasn't required for the InSight EDL, by the way; their ability to relay telemetry in real time was convenient but not critical to the mission. They were more of a technology demonstration than a necessary piece of the system.

  • $\begingroup$ So MarCOs weren't its necessity at the first place? That said, InSight is able to take care of itself throughout the mission after landed? $\endgroup$ – not_Prince Nov 27 '18 at 1:38
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    $\begingroup$ MarCOs weren't necessary; I believe InSight will rely on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as a main communication relay with Earth going forward. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Nov 27 '18 at 2:57
  • $\begingroup$ Where would they go after this? Are the two CubeSats going to slowly drift away into deep space overtime? That's sad, though. $\endgroup$ – not_Prince Nov 27 '18 at 3:36
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    $\begingroup$ They'll drift forever in an orbit around the sun, like many interplanetary probes and transfer stages have before them. They aren't going fast enough to leave the solar system. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Nov 27 '18 at 3:46
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    $\begingroup$ @si_the_nibba: Technically, they are space trash. However, the density of man-made objects in heliocentric orbit is too low for Kessler syndrome. It's Low Earth Orbit and geosynchronous orbit that we need to worry about. $\endgroup$ – DrSheldon Nov 27 '18 at 4:56

As Russell Borogove has already noted, neither the MarCO cubesats nor InSight itself had the ability to enter into an orbit around Mars. Their only options were either to hit the planet or to fly past it. And, unlike InSight, the MarCOs were not equipped to survive entry into the Martian atmosphere, either.

From the way you phrased your question, I suspect you have a rather mistaken mental image of the whole process. Maybe you're imagining something like three boats sailing to an island in the ocean, with one landing and two remaining offshore. Or maybe your mental image is closer to three airplanes flying to a remote airfield, again with one landing while the other two keep circling in the air.

A more accurate mental image would be three darts thrown at a watermelon. One hit and stuck in the target, while the other two (deliberately) missed and flew past it.

If you want a more accurate understanding of the mechanics involves, go play some Kerbal Space Program (or one of the other semi-realistic space flight games on the market nowadays, like Simple Rockets 2). If you do, one thing you'll realize is that, in general, anything that falls in towards a planet from interplanetary space will have enough velocity to keep flying past it and away again. Orbital mechanics are symmetric like that.

To actually get captured into an orbit around a planet requires slowing down somehow, and in practice that usually means having a rocket engine and firing it retrograde.* While InSight and the MarCOs did have some small maneuvering thrusters for fine-tuning their course in mid-flight, those wouldn't have had nearly enough delta-v to let them stop their flight past Mars and enter an orbit around it instead.

*) Other options include hitting the planet and landing (more or less softly; technically, this doesn't get you into orbit, but it does stop you from flying away from the planet) or aerocapture, which unfortunately tends to be a much riskier maneuver in real life than it is in KSP. Another different between KSP and reality is that KSP's Mars-analogue, Duna, has a huge moon that can be used to slow down via gravity assist. Unfortunately, the real-life moons of Mars are way too small for their gravity to have any significant effect on interplanetary spacecraft flying past them. In any case, neither aerocapture nor gravity assist alone can technically get you into a stable orbit, although they can get you close enough that even rather weak thrusters can finish the job.

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    $\begingroup$ I like the darts and watermelon analogy. In this case dart 1 just grazed the skin and stuck rather than hitting dead center. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Dec 3 '18 at 13:02

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