On Its Way to Mars, Cubesat Snaps Photo of Earth and the Moon

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NASA’s InSight Mars mission launched on May 5, but it wasn’t the only piece of equipment that began its journey to the red planet. The agency also sent two small cubesats along with InSight, and one of them just snapped its first photo. It’s a long way from getting any snapshots of Mars, so NASA pointed the camera back at Earth and got a nice “pale blue dot” homage.

InSight is a lander that will drop down to Mars and examine its interior by taking seismic readings. That’s a first for scientists studying Mars. The two Mars Cube One (or just MarCO) satellites will swing by the planet to act as communication platforms for InSight. These are considered experimental satellites, so the mission InSight won’t be affected if they don’t perform as intended.

The MarCO satellites are traveling separately from InSight, even though they launched aboard the same rocket. Since they’re cubesats, each one fits inside a standard frame measuring 14.4 x 9.5 x 4.6-inches (36.6 x 24.3 x 11.8 centimeters). They’re about the size of a briefcase before the antenna and solar panels deploy.

As you can probably guess, the goal of these cubesats is not to snap photos. However, they do have cameras. NASA pinged MarCO-B on May 9 (just a few days after launch) in order to make sure its high-gain antenna deployed correctly. The satellite got the signal, took a photo, and sent it back to Earth. The image shows the properly deployed antenna at the edge and Earth off in the distance. If you look closely, you can actually see the moon as well. It’s almost too faint to show up, though.

MarCO chief engineer Andy Klesh called the image a “homage to Voyager.” He is, of course, referring to the famous pale blue dot photo taken by the Voyager spacecraft in 1990 at the request of scientist Carl Sagan. That probe was looking back at Earth from a distance of 3.7 billion miles (6 billion kilometers), but MarCO-B was much closer to home — just 620,000 miles (1 million kilometers).

The plan is to have the MarCO perform a flyby of Mars on November 26. That’s when InSight will begin its descent to the planet’s surface. By relaying data from InSight, the team hopes to show that small cubesats can be useful in deep space missions. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will be communicating with InSight as well in case MarCO doesn’t work out. After the flyby, NASA will conduct a long-distance health check on the satellites, and then the mission will be over. This may only be the beginning of cubesat use in deep space missions, though.

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