Sidekicks will tell NASA how landing goes
A pair of tiny experimental satellites trailing NASA’s InSight spacecraft all the way to Mars face their biggest test yet.
Their mission: Broadcast immediate news, good or bad, of InSight’s plunge through the Martian atmosphere on Monday.
Named WALL-E and EVE after the main characters in the 2008 animated movie, the twin CubeSats will pass within a few thousand miles of Mars as the lander attempts its dicey touchdown.
If these pipsqueaks manage to relay InSight’s radio signals to ground controllers nearly 100 million miles away, we’ll know within minutes whether the spacecraft landed safely.
A look at InSight’s ittybitty sidekicks:
Hitchhikers: WALL-E and EVE, each the size of a
briefcase, hitched a ride on the same rocket that launched InSight to Mars in May.
Flight formation: NASA kept the CubeSats about 6,000 miles away from InSight during the 300 million-mile journey to Mars to prevent any collisions or close calls.
Best behavior: For the
record, EVE has behaved better than WALL-E during the 6 1⁄2- month voyage to Mars. Each CubeSat has the same type of cold gas propulsion that’s used in fire extinguishers to spray foam.
All ears: It takes eight minutes and seven seconds for a radio signal to get from Mars to Earth, one way. It should take less than a minute on top of that to get word from InSight, if the mini satel-
lites cooperate. That means NASA could know InSight’s fate close to real time.
Beyond Mars: Whether or not they provide any insight on InSight, WALL-E and EVE will zoom past Mars and remain in an elliptical orbit around the sun. Engineers expect them to keep working for a couple weeks beyond Mars depending on how long the fuel and electronics last.