PolySat members Alex Nichols and Maddie Tran discuss their recent CubeSats during the CubeSat Developers Workshop. Luca Soares | Courtesy Photo

Cal Poly CubeSat is making Mars exploration history as they aided in the operations of the first interplanetary CubeSats, which head to the red planet after launching the morning of May 5 from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

A CubeSat is an approximately 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters satellite which can be developed at a low cost, allowing students to participate in space exploration by launching CubeSats with the support of different organizations.

The CubeSat team partnered with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) to create the first two CubeSats of their kind, collectively called Marco. These were the first CubeSats to ever leave Earth’s orbit.

“Marco is a technology demonstration … the first time we have ever sent an interplanetary CubeSat, and its purpose is to relay information from the inside as rapidly as possible,” Instrument Manager and Instrument Systems Engineer for NASA’s Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe (HP3) Troy Lee Hudson said.

HP3 is an instrument attached to InSight along with Marco that will drill into Mars’ surface to survey how much heat is flowing out of the planet.

Marco is onboard the United Launch Alliance  Atlas V 401 rocket with NASA’s  robotic InSight lander, designed to study the interior structure of Mars.

What exactly does it do? 

Marco will be relaying data from the lander back to earth in its early stages right after landing on Mars.

“The CubeSat organization, including students and paid staff members, actually help put both Marco spacecrafts inside their deployers, [and] made sure that they were good to go,” computer science grad student and CubeSat and PolySat co-lab manager Noah Weitz said.

The deployers Marco travels in are developed by Tyvak, a company founded at Cal Poly in the PolySat program that develops nanosatellite and CubeSat space vehicle products.

After the rocket approaches Mars in late November, the PolySat team will be working on the operations of Marco and gathering the information concerning InSight that Marco sends back from Mars.

“Not a lot of information has been released yet, but what is known is that PolySat will be conducting operations for Marco using the Deep Space Network of JPL,” PolySat member and computer engineering junior Luca Soares said.

Weitz and physics and astronomy professor Louise Edwards said the opportunity to interact with the material and data they will be using in their future careers speaks volumes about the opportunities the CubeSat and PolySat program provides.

“Students at Cal Poly actually helped put together pieces of these CubeSats that are going with InSight to Mars. This is Cal Poly students with their hands on the material that is being launched into space and going to Mars. It speaks to the amazing opportunities that are available to students here at Cal Poly,” Edwards said.

NASA’s Insight lander

On the morning of April 28, Hudson visited Cal Poly to speak about InSight.

“InSight is trying to understand the formation and evolution of terrestrial planets like Earth and Mars by looking inside Mars, specifically by looking inside Mars and finding out about its core, mantle, crust and the things that make the planet what it is,” Hudson said.

InSight has two main instruments: the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS)which will measure seismic waves, and HP3, which will measure temperature changes on Mars.

“I think keeping people informed on the scientific exploration that is still happening today is very important. There’s still so much about the universe we still do not know, and I personally believe the more we understand about the universe, the more beautiful it becomes,” Hudson said.

InSight’s mission ultimately aims to understand how Mars was formed. 

Honoring the CubeSat

The CubeSat Standard began in 1999 as a collaboration between Cal Poly professor Jordi Puig-Suari and Bob Twiggs, a professor at Stanford University’s Space Systems Development Laboratory as a way to give students access to space. Since then, the standard has been adopted by hundreds of organizations worldwide, including private firms and government organizations.

Cal Poly hosts a CubeSat Developers Workshop each year, this year being the 15th workshop named “All Grown Up.” The workshop included presentations as well as an array of booths from professional CubeSat companies such as Tyvak, Vectorand JPL.

If all goes as planned, Atlas V carrying two CubeSats integrated by Cal Poly students will touch down just north of the Martian equator Nov. 26.

Correction: The headline previously stated “Cal Poly students build first interplanetary CubeSats, launched on mission to Mars.” It has been updated. The first paragraph also previously stated that “their first interplanetary Cubesats…,” this has been changed to “they aided in the operations of the first interplanetary CubeSats…” Mustang News would like to make it clear that CubeSat did not build Marco, rather helped in its operations. 

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