The Tribune (SLO) - - Front Page - BY GABBY FER­REIRA

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

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 1 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.”

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.”


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.

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