History-Making Small Satellite Mission to Mars, Honored as Mission of the Year, Has Ties to Cal Poly
Students, faculty and staff played pivotal role in the success of MarCO CubeSats WALL-E and EVE that relayed data from Mars lander InSight in November 2018
SAN LUIS OBIPSO — A pair of briefcase-size satellites — tested and packed for launch at Cal Poly — that traveled to Mars were honored as “Small Satellite Mission of the Year” by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics earlier this month.
NASA’s Mars Cube One, or MarCO, included the two CubeSats — compact satellites made up of cube-shaped units — nicknamed WALL-E and EVE. The twins, which were designed and built at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, flew behind NASA’s InSight lander after launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 5, 2018.
The spacecrafts traveled more than 300 million miles on their 6-1/2 month trek to the red planet. It was the first deep space mission for a CubeSat — a worldwide standard for small satellites originally developed 20 years ago as a collaboration between Cal Poly’s CubeSat Lab and Stanford University.
During the lander’s descent to the Martian surface Nov. 26, 2018, WALL-E and EVE relayed information in real time from InSight to the mission control team.
“We were thrilled that MarCO’s success was recognized by our peers with the awarding of the SmallSat Mission of the Year — the MarCO spacecraft were built in collaboration with our commercial, government and academic partners, so its success was enabled by the entire community.,” said MarCO Chief Engineer Andy Klesh after the Aug. 8 award ceremony at the 2019 Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah.
“Overall, the MarCO mission did exceed many expectations, not only surviving to reach Mars in spite of low-cost equipment but also relaying all but a few seconds of the InSight data during its descent to the surface,” he said.
In addition, WALL-E sent back stunning images of Mars while EVE performed some simple radio science. All of this was achieved with experimental technology that cost a fraction of what most space missions do, NASA officials said.
Accepting the award was JPL’s Glen Elliott, an engineer with NASA’s Deep Space Network who worked with the MarCO team.
Also present were students and faculty representing the several universities who gained first-hand experience supporting the mission. On stage for the ceremony were Cal Poly Computer Science professor John Bellardo, who directs the university’s CubeSat Lab — the campus epicenter for a class of small satellite — and Kate Parkinson, an aerospace engineering senior from Shoreline, Washington, who leads the CubeSat Lab’s Assembly, Test and Launch Operations team.
“Cal Poly assisted with integration of the spacecraft into their deployment cannisters, and their students actively participated in spaceflight operations,” Klesh said. “Several students from Cal Poly interned with the MarCO team throughout its journey to Mars, analyzing data, preparing commands and even were present on entry-descent-and-landing day.”
WALL-E and EVE underwent two weeks of testing and preparation at Cal Poly in the spring of 2018. Aerospace engineers from Cal Poly assisted their counterparts with JPL and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems Inc., with a nearby office in the Cal Poly Technology Park, in inserting, or integrating, the satellites into the deployment boxes that ejected each CubeSat into space.
Other Cal Poly students also played a role in the mission. Computer engineering student and PolySat lab manager Justin Nguyen of Fremont, California, and aerospace engineering student Cassandra Kraver of Chandler, Arizona, were JPL interns who served on flight operations and helped bring back data from InSight during the landing.
In addition, aerospace engineering seniors Alfonso Gonzalez of Redmond, Wash., and Erik Ekstrom, of Oxnard, California, covered the two deployers with gold thermal insulating tape. The tape provided additional protection because the two satellites were mounted near the second-stage engine and were exposed to lots of heat while it was firing.
MarCO’s mission ended after data from the InSight landing was downloaded. Meanwhile, the crafts continue in an elliptical orbit around the sun even though they fell silent in February.
“While JPL lost contact with the MarCO spacecraft last January, their trajectory around the sun is well known,” Klesh said. “Neither will closely approach the Earth for decades to come.”
This deep space mission will not be the last for CubeSats, first envisioned to give students the opportunity to design, build and launch small satellites into space. What began as a vehicle for students has been embraced by space agencies, industry, governments and amateur developers across the globe. Hundreds of CubeSats have been launched, including nearly a dozen built by Cal Poly students.
“CubeSats not only serve as educational tools; they also have developed into scientific platforms, technology test-beds, and even the basis for commercial endeavors,” said the JPL’s Klesh. “MarCO served as a trailblazer for deep space small missions, not only in a CubeSat form-factor, but it has opened up the possibilities for smaller missions in the future, expanding our ability to explore the solar system.
Two upcoming deep space CubeSat missions will feature more than a dozen of the diminutive satellites. The first is Artemis 1, the second planned flight of the uncrewed Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to be launched to the moon on the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, possibly in 2020.
The other is a joint planetary defense-driven test between NASA and the European Space Agency of technologies to prevent an impact of Earth by a hazardous asteroid.
NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission will first crash into a small asteroid. Hera, a pair of briefcase-size CubeSats developed by the ESA, will follow-up with a detailed post-impact survey that scientists say will turn this grand-scale experiment into a well-understood and repeatable planetary defense technique. The mission will launch from Vandenberg no sooner than July 2021.
For more information about MarCO, visit:
A team of engineers assisted in integrating the MarCO CubeSats into their deployment boxes on March 2-3, 2018. Standing from left, Justin Carnahan, a Tyvak mission manager and Cal Poly alumnus, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Danny Forgett, a thermal systems engineer, and Joel Steinkraus, MarCO lead mechanical engineer; kneeling are (left) Vidur Kaushish, another mission manager at Tyvak Nanosatellite Systems, and Cal Poly aeronautical engineer Dave Pignatelli.
An engineer from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., lifts one of the MarCO communication satellites that accompanied the Mars InSight lander.
In the photo at top, JPL engineer Glen Elliott (center) holds the 2019 Small Satellite Mission of the Year Award alongside others who supported the MarCO mission. From left: Matthew Szczerba, Cal Poly aerospace student Kate Parkinson, Ben Malphrus, Kerri Cahoy, Elliott, Chloe Hart, Emily Clements, and Cal Poly computer science Professor John Bellardo. (Photo by AIAA)
Contact: Jay Thompson
August 21, 2019
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