A pair of mini satellites has boldly ventured where few spacecrafts have gone before. But the duo weren’t alone. The interstellar tag-alongs accompanied a NASA lander to Mars. The Mars Cube One (MarCO) mission was a test of whether these experimental spacecrafts could survive the seven-month trip to Mars and broadcast nearly real-time news of the big lander’s touchdown.
CubeSats are small and fairly low-cost. They always rideshare on larger rockets. MarCO-A and MarCO-B—nicknamed “EVE” and “WALL-E” after the leads in the 2008 Pixar film—hitched a ride on the same rocket that launched NASA’s robotic lander InSight in May.
The CubeSats—cube-shaped satellites— performed as planned according to chief engineer Andy Klesh of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). They relayed data with just an eight-minute delay—about the time it takes for signals to travel from Mars to Earth. Klesh says the briefcase-sized satellites “were an excellent test of how CubeSats can serve as ‘tag-alongs’ on future missions.” The MarCO team will spend weeks collecting information from the CubeSats—how much fuel each has left and how well data relay worked.
Here are some facts about the trip:
NASA kept the CubeSats about 6,000 miles away (over twice the width of the United States!) from InSight during the 300-million-mile journey to Mars. They wanted to prevent any collisions—or even close calls. The mini satellites were just as far from each other for the same reason.
Each CubeSat uses the same kind of gas propulsion that’s used in fire extinguishers to spray foam. During the voyage, EVE behaved better than WALL-E, who leaked fuel almost the whole time.
WALL-E and EVE sent back images of Mars from eight million miles out. Mars was only a bright pinpoint, but the images marked a CubeSat first.
As NASA explores more of God’s universe, CubeSats could be outposts to beam updates back to Earth. They could perform fact-finding missions where there are no satellites—like asteroids or dwarf planets on the edges of the solar system.
TO MARS . . . AND BEYOND!
Their mission complete, WALL-E and EVE zoomed past Mars. They’ll remain in an elliptical orbit around the Sun for as long as their fuel and electronics last.
As WALL-E and EVE flew away, InSight began measuring Mars’ temperature, landscape, and other features. The lander will relay much more data to NASA. But on the first leg of this interplanetary trip, CubeSats were the stars!
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the Moon and the stars, . . . what is man that you are mindful of him? — Psalm 8:3-4