Sun, May 06, 2018 - Page 5 News List

NASA spacecraft to have company all the way to Mars


NASA’s next Mars explorer will have company all the way to the Red Planet: a couple of puny yet groundbreaking sidekicks.

Named after the characters in the 2008 animated movie, the small satellites WALL-E and EVE are hitching a ride on an Atlas V rocket that was launched early yesterday morning from California with the Mars InSight lander.

Similar in size to a briefcase or large cereal box, the satellites were made to pop out from the rocket’s upper stage following liftoff and hightail it to Mars, right behind InSight.

It is the first time little cube-shaped satellites, called CubeSats, set sail for deep space. The journey is to span six-and-a-half months and 485 million kilometers.

Miniature satellites, or CubeSats, have been piggybacking on big-ticket space missions for well over a decade, providing relatively cheap and fast access to orbit for students and other out-of-the-mainstream experimenters. Until now, the hundreds of CubeSats have been confined to Earth orbit. That is to change with NASA’s Mars Cube One project.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency has its CubeSat sights on the moon. A recent competition yielded two winning proposals: a CubeSat to explore the moon’s far side from lunar orbit, another to probe a permanently shadowed crater near the moon’s south pole, also from lunar orbit. NASA is also looking to send CubeSats to the moon, as well as an asteroid.

It turns out that these twin cubes are equipped with the same type of cold gas propulsion system used in fire extinguishers to spray foam.

The movie WALL-E uses a fire extinguisher to propel through space. Team members could not resist the connection, thus the names WALL-E and EVE for the two mini-spacecraft. Engineers want to test this compact propulsion system for guiding the 13.6kg cubes to Mars.

Once free from the rocket’s upper stage following liftoff, WALL-E and EVE are to trail a few thousand kilometers behind InSight en route to Mars. The two mini-spacecraft will also be a few thousand kilometers apart from one another.

While InSight is to stop at Mars on Nov. 26, WALL-E and EVE are to zoom past the planet from about 3,500 kilometers out.

Besides testing the cubes’ maneuvering system, NASA wants to see if WALL-E and EVE can transmit data to Earth from InSight during its descent to Mars. If the experiment succeeds, it should take just several minutes for flight controllers to hear from the cubes.

No worries if they are silent. NASA plans to rely on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter already circling the planet as the main communication link with InSight during descent and touchdown, but it would take a lot longer to get confirmation.

The beauty of a CubeSat relay system is that it could provide descent information at planets and other cosmic stop-offs lacking established communications.

Once past Mars, WALL-E and EVE are to remain in an elliptical orbit around the sun, together for years to come.

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