Education

These CubeSats helped with InSight’s Mars landing. Now they’ll be in space forever

Two CubeSat satellites with ties to Cal Poly helped land NASA’s InSight spacecraft last week — and are now on their way to a lonely eternity in space.

Both MarCO-A and MarCO-B were tested at Cal Poly together. They launched together from Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 5 aboard the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

On the way to Mars, the CubeSats stayed no further away from each other than 10,000 kilometers — a short distance for space, said Joel Krajewski, MarCO project manager and an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Their journey together recently came to an end, when InSight landed on Mars on Nov. 26.

“We aimed MarCO-A and MarCO-B to fly over InSight with different geometry, so after they flew by Mars, the gravity well bent their trajectory into different directions,” Krajewski told The Tribune in a phone interview. “Not only did they say goodbye to InSight, but they also had to say goodbye to each other.”

The satellites are now roughly 2.1 million kilometers past Mars and one million miles from each other, Krajewski said.

Their engineers nicknamed them “Eve” and “Wall-E” after the stars of the 2008 movie “Wall-E,” and, similar to the stars of that movie, fate has torn the satellites apart.

“The prime mission is done, and so they will be in orbit around the sun forever,” Krajewski said.

The satellites are going to go a little bit beyond Mars before they start coming back toward the sun sometime around February, he said. They’ll get about as close to the sun as Earth is, before heading back toward Mars.

But there’s not much else for the satellites to do besides continue their orbits, Krajewski said.

“It’s depressing for us. Space is way big, so there really aren’t any objects or other spacecrafts that will get anywhere close to it (the satellites) ever, so there’s really nothing to take pictures of,” he said.

Krajewski said his team is in talks with NASA about keeping the satellites running to test how long different technological systems can survive in space.

“Something we’re going to do in the short term is working with NASA to figure out what kind of plan makes sense for them,” Krajewski said. “It’s not like we will turn out the lights abruptly.”

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MarCO-B, one of the experimental CubeSats, took this photo of Mars from about 10,900 miles away just after NASA’s InSight spacecraft landed on Nov. 26. 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 Cal Poly’s campus on Feb. 28, a Cal Poly news release said. Engineers from Cal Poly and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory spent the following 17 days integrating the satellites into the deployment boxes that ejected each CubeSat into space, the release said.

During InSight’s landing, the satellites relayed information to InSight’s landing team in 8 minutes, which was faster than relying on information from NASA’s Mars orbiters, according to a NASA news release.

Two Cal Poly engineering students filled the role of system engineer for each of the satellites during landing, Brian Clement, a MarCO engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and a Cal Poly alumnus, told The Tribune in a phone interview.

The students, Cassandra Kraver and Justin Nguyen, had to perform a quick assessment of the spacecraft’s health as it started communicating with the team, Clement said, and quickly figure out if any data got dropped between the satellite and the ground. Then, the students had to pick up and re-transmit the data, he said.

“We needed that answer within about 15 minutes,” Clement said. “It was a great experience for them and they contributed a lot to the team.”

“’We could not have done this without them,” Krajewski said.

One of the primary goals of the mission was to see if CubeSats could survive in deep space, said Andrew Good, a spokesman for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. “No one has ever sent them to deep space. This this was the first mission to go past the moon and to fly all the way to another planet.”

As MarCO-B flew by Mars on Nov. 26 for what will likely be the final time, it took a few images of the Red Planet: one just before InSight’s landing, one from 4,700 miles away, one from 10,900 miles away just after the landing and another from about 10,900 miles away that shows Mars and a sunburst.

Even though the twin satellites will likely continue their lonely orbits for the rest of time, “we’re still talking to them,” Clement said. “We’re still keeping them company.”

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