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Central Coast University Plays Key Role In Groundbreaking West Coast Mission To Mars

One of the CubeSats in orbit

The final countdown is on for the first-ever West Coast launch of a mission to Mars.

There’s lot of excitement, but perhaps no one is as thrilled as a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student who actually got the opportunity to be a part of the project. Alfonzo Gonzales is an aerospace engineering major at Cal Poly. He’s one of the students who worked on a pair of communications relay satellites being sent toward Mars along with the primary payload, a spacecraft called “Insight” which will land on the planet.

The relay satellites are a special, standardized size created by Cal Poly, and Stanford researchers nearly two decades ago. John Bellardo is a professor with Cal Poly’s Computer Science Department, and a part of the CubeSat effort.

The two satellites onboard the Atlas V rocket set to lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base early Saturday morning are called Mars Cube One, or MarCo.

Hundreds of the 12 inch tall, eight inch wide CubeSats have been launched as extra payload with larger craft. But, this is the first interplanetary mission.

Cal Poly and JPL engineers worked in a special facility at the San Luis Obispo campus to get the tiny craft ready for their flight. The Mars CubeSats will be deployed from the Atlas booster after Saturday’s launch, and travel on their own path to Mars. After their antenna and solar arrays are deployed, the tiny craft will be able to relay transmissions from the Omsight craft much more quickly than existing radio systems.

Gonzales says he probably will get little sleep Friday night, with the two hour launch window opening at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 4:05 a.m. Saturday. If the weather cooperates, the launch should be visible throughour the Central and South Coasts Saturday morning.

The Insight craft carries a number of onboard instruments intended to help us learn more about Mars. It has a seismometer to measure “Marsquakes,” the Mars version of earthquakes, as well as other instruments to in effect allow researchers to give the planet a physical.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral. 
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