Cal Poly Engineering Students Assist NASA MarCO CubeSat Flight to Mars

Twin communications satellites will relay data from InSight to Earth in historic mission

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Two briefcase-size satellites that underwent testing and preparation at Cal Poly will travel to Vandenberg Air Force Base on Saturday in conjunction with an historic NASA mission to Mars that is scheduled to launch in May.

Despite their small size, the twin communications-relay satellites, called Mars Cube One (MarCO), will enter the history books.

“These are the first CubeSats to go interplanetary,” said Ryan Nugent, a staff aerospace engineer at Cal Poly. “That’s the big one. Nobody would have imagined that 10 or 20 years ago.”

CubeSats are based on a standardized small size and modular use of off-the-shelf technologies. Many have been made by university students — some even by high school students — since the standard was created by a Cal Poly professor and his counterpart at Stanford University in 1999 in order to promote and develop the skills necessary for creating small satellites intended for low-Earth-orbit operations.

Since the first CubeSat was launched in 2003, more than 700 have been lifted off into Earth orbit using extra payload mass available on launches of larger spacecraft.

MarCO — 12 inches tall, 4 inches deep and 8 inches wide — arrived on campus Feb. 28. Over the next 17 days, engineers from Cal Poly and the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena assisted in inserting, or integrating, the satellites into the deployment boxes that will eject each CubeSat into space. In addition, Cal Poly students also spent nearly 15 hours wrapping the deployment boxes in protective gold aluminized Kapton tape.

The satellites will launch as early as May 5 from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the same United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket as NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander. InSight is NASA’s first mission devoted to understanding the interior structure of the Red Planet — and the first interplanetary mission to launch from the West Coast.

MarCO, which was built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will fly by Mars while InSight is landing.

The two CubeSats will separate from the Atlas V booster after launch and travel along their own trajectories to the Red Planet. After release from the launch vehicle, MarCO’s first challenges are to deploy two radio antennas and two solar panels. The high-gain, X-band antenna is a flat panel engineered to direct radio waves the way a parabolic dish antenna does. MarCO will be navigated to Mars independently of the InSight spacecraft, with its own course adjustments using onboard propellant and thruster.

During InSight’s entry, descent and landing (EDL) operations on Nov. 26, the lander will transmit information in the UHF radio band to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) flying overhead. The MRO, which has been in orbit around the Red Planet since 2006, will forward EDL information to Earth using a radio frequency in the X band but cannot simultaneously receive information over one band while transmitting on another. Confirmation of a successful landing could be received by the orbiter more than an hour before it’s relayed to Earth.

MarCO’s softball-size radio provides both UHF (receive only) and X-band (receive and transmit) functions capable of immediately relaying information received over UHF.

It will be a first test of miniaturized CubeSat technology at another planet, which researchers hope can offer new capabilities to future missions. If successful, the MarCOs could represent a new kind of data relay to Earth.

InSight’s success is independent of its CubeSat tag-alongs.

Cal Poly students, who have had more than a dozen university-built satellites launch since July of 2006 — as well as four additional student-built satellites that could launch this year — were impressed by the historic nature of the mission.

“This was definitely a project that they were excited about, even more so than the rest of our CubeSat projects,” said Cal Poly’s Nugent. “It’s just because of the significance of this one. First, they are going to another planet, and second, that MarCO is the first ever to do that.”

For more information about MarCO, visit:

For information about InSight, visit:

Contact: Jay Thompson

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