Why NASA Is Launching Tiny, Lunchbox-Sized Spacecraft to Mars  

The video above from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories introduces us to “cubesats,” short for cube satellites.

When most of us think about spacecraft, we think about car- or even truck-sized modules densely packed with scientific equipment and armed with legs, wheels, and big solar panels. Ambitious flying Swiss Army knives like the Mars rovers have complex, multifaceted missions. Since they’re so complicated, they’re hard to build, with extended and expensive development and manufacturing times.

Cubesats are another thing altogether. Their ambitions are far more limited, with each cubesat highly focused on a single thing it can do very well. They’re also dinky, ranging from 10-by-10-by-10-centimeter cubes to 30-by-20-by-10 centimeters. Being simpler, these little craft can cost up to 30 times less than traditional modules, and can be put together far more quickly.

The term cubesat is actually a bit of a misnomer, since these aren’t just things that can spin around Earth. While there are already hundreds of cubesats in lower orbit overhead, they can be sent anywhere.

In the video, we get a look at the first interplanetary cubesat, lunchbox-sized Marco, or Mars Cube 1. It looks like a PC some nerd has assembled it using off-the-shelf parts. Which is sort of what it is, except that it’s headed for the red planet, and JPL’s off-the-shelf parts are not things you can get at Best Buy. JPL’s engineers have also been experimenting with 3-D printing for cubesat parts. Marco’s going to travel to Mars on its own after being launched with the Insight satellite. Its single purpose is to monitor Insight’s arrival on Mars.