We’ve been working on Asteroid Prospector, a 6U CubeSat to explore Near Earth Objects, for the past two years. It is quite a challenge to pack all the hardware into a 6U frame. Here is our latest design:
The nadir face has both an Optical Navigation System camera and a JPL designed robot arm. The arm is used to grapple the asteroid and get samples. The camera is used both for interplanetary navigation and close maneuvering near the asteroid.
Our fuel load only allows for one way missions but could be increased for sample return missions by adding another xenon tank, making it more of a 12U CubeSat. With that in mind, we wondered if we could do a Mars orbital mission with our 6U. It turns out it is possible! We would start in a GPS orbit, carried there by one of the many GPS launches. The spacecraft would spiral out of Earth orbit and perform a Hohmann transfer to Mars. Even though we are using a low-thrust ion engine, the burn duration is a small fraction of the Hohmann ellipse time making a Hohmann transfer a good approximation. We then spiral into Mars orbit for the science mission as seen in a VisualCommander simulation.
The low cost of the 6U mission makes it possible to send several spacecraft to Mars, each with its own instrument. This has the added benefit of reducing program risk as the loss of one spacecraft would not end the mission. Many challenges remain, including making the electronics sufficiently radiation hard for the interplanetary and Mars orbit environments. The lifetime of the mechanical components, such as reaction wheels, must also be long enough to last for the duration of the mission.
We’ll keep you posted in future blogs on our progress! Stay tuned!