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Size matters. In general as a spacecraft or instrument, the smaller you are, the less is the cost to get built, integrated, tested, and carried to your destination. People at JPL built the first smallsat, Explorer 1, but that was because that was all that Wernher von Braun’s U.S. Army-sponsored Jupiter-C team could launch. The microelectronics, software sophistication, microfabrication, and additive manufacturing revolutions of the last 50 years have brought big capabilities to small packages; this applies in space as well as on Earth. Big spacecraft are here to stay: you need them for certain missions and applications, and to carry people to the places we want to go, explore, and maybe even settle. But smallsats and CubeSats are enabling new missions and new measurements, from 24/7 high-resolution Earth viewing, to global monitoring for new wildland fires, to the search for ice near the Moon’s poles. JPL and ASU, among others, have slots aboard NASA’s planned 2018-19 Earth-Moon 1 mission to place CubeSats in lunar orbit to look for potential operationally useful deposits of water ice from which rocket propellant and life support supplies could be made.
Small (~1 kg) instrument payloads could be carried to Mars’ surface utilizing the MarsDrop delivery system, based on an architecture that takes advantage of the extra cruise stage mass capability available on most Mars missions. From canyons to glaciers, from geology to astrobiology, the amount of exciting surface science awaiting us at Mars greatly outstrips the available mission opportunities. Whether from the destination risks or just from the significant expense of a traditional Mars lander, the majority of proposed scientific surface missions are eliminated from consideration. By utilizing The Aerospace Corporation’s Reentry Breakup Recorder (REBR) entry system already proven at Earth, and adding a parawing for descent and landing that has been tested above the Earth’s stratosphere at Mars dynamic pressure and density, a 3 kg entry vehicle can deliver small instruments to targeted locations. Such a vehicle could be accommodated on direct-entry Mars missions for <10 kg. CubeSat and smallsat-class componentry, such as that utilized for JPL’s Interplanetary NanoSpacecraft Pathfinder In a Relevant Environment (INSPIRE), Mars CubeSat One (MarCO), and other sources, would provide the needed electrical power, computing, and telecommunications resources to enable surface operations for 90 sols, and potentially much longer.
MarsDrop’s small size could enable sterilization of its components, sterile assembly, and encapsulation in a sterile plastic shrink-wrap bag for ground handling. This bio-barrier bag would later burn off during hypersonic Mars entry. As a result, “special regions” on Mars, where the presence of part-time liquid water is possible, could be feasible targets within NASA planetary protection guidelines. Furthermore, sampling material that might have rolled down the side of a crater exhibiting potentially-wet recurring slope lineae (RSLs) could be feasible, along with other targeted destinations using terrain relative navigation and steering MarsDrop’s parawing.