Education

CubeSat tested at Cal Poly is on its way to Mars — and it sent back a snapshot

A briefcase-size satellite that was tested at Cal Poly recently captured a historic photo of Mars — nearly 250 million miles from Earth.

A wide-angle camera attached to one of two identical CubeSat satellites took the photo approximately 8 million miles from Mars on Oct. 3 as a test of its exposure settings, according to a Cal Poly news release.

The satellites are called MarCO-A and MarCO-B — short for Mars Cube One — but they’ve been nicknamed “Eve” and “Wall-E” by their engineers, the release said. (The satellites share their nicknames with a pair of robots from the 2008 animated movie “WALL-E.”)

In order to take the image, engineers had to program Wall-E to rotate in space so the deck of its “body” pointed at Mars, which is a moving target as it orbits the sun, according to the release.

MarCO_annotated.jpg
One of NASA’s twin MarCO spacecraft took this image of Mars on October 3, 2018. The MarCO satellites underwent testing and preparation at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo in February. NASA/JPL-Caltech

CubeSat technology was created by former Cal Poly professor Jordi Puig-Suari and Stanford professor Bob Twiggs in 1999, making satellite launches accessible to universities, high schools and private companies around the world.

The MarCO satellites, which measure 12 inches tall, 4 inches deep and 8 inches wide, arrived on campus in San Luis Obispo on Feb. 28, the release said.

Engineers from Cal Poly and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory spent the next 17 days integrating the satellites into the deployment boxes that ejected each CubeSat into space, the release said.

The satellites launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 5 aboard the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, Cal Poly said.

“We’ve been waiting six months to get to Mars,” Cody Colley, MarCO’s mission manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the release. “The cruise phase of the mission is always difficult, so you take all the small wins when they come. Finally seeing the planet is definitely a big win for the team.”

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The MarCO mission hopes to produce more images as the CubeSat satellites approach Mars ahead of a planned Nov. 26 flyby of the planet, according to the release.

Cal Poly says the MarCO satellites are the first CubeSats to travel to deep space.

“Nobody would have imagined that 10 or 20 years ago,” Ryan Nugent, a staff aerospace engineer at Cal Poly, said in the release.

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