NASA Unveils First Photo Of Earth Captured By The Twin MarCO Satellites On Their Way To Mars

The pioneering "Wall-E" and "Eva" CubeSats that left Earth's orbit on May 5 together with the InSight Mars lander have beamed back their first snapshot of our planet as seen from one million kilometers away.

Following in the footsteps of the Voyager 1 spacecraft, the twin satellites, dubbed Mars Cube One or MarCO, took their own version of a "pale blue dot" image from space, snapping a photo of both the Earth and the moon in one single shot, NASA announced yesterday.

"Consider it our homage to Voyager," said Andy Klesh, MarCO's chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which built the CubeSats and manages their trailblazing mission on the red planet.

This first-ever image from the MarsCO mission was captured on May 9 by the "Wall-E" satellite, officially known as MarCO-B. The tiny CubeSat, roughly the size of a briefcase, took the snapshot after the twin satellites had reached a record-distance of 621,371 miles from Earth on the previous day, NASA reveals.

"CubeSats have never gone this far into space before, so it's a big milestone," Klesh pointed out.

"Both our CubeSats are healthy and functioning properly. We're looking forward to seeing them travel even farther," he added.

This first MarCO image of Earth comes only a few days after the satellites' first radio call from outer space. As previously reported by the Inquisitr, the twin CubeSats radioed NASA shortly after their May 5 launch, confirming that they're doing well and that they managed to unfold their solar panels.

By receiving MarCO-B's first snapshot of Earth, the space agency now has confirmation that the satellites have successfully deployed their high-gain antennas as well. According to NASA, these antennas are crucial to the MarCO mission and will serve to relay data on the InSight lander's entry in the Martian atmosphere.

The MarCO satellites are one-of-a-kind CubeSats that have taken on the bold mission of traveling 301 million miles (or about 485 million kilometers) to the red planet. The briefcase-sized satellites are accompanying NASA's InSight mission in order to prove that CubeSat technology can be successfully used in interplanetary missions.

Just like the "marscopter" that the space agency is planning to launch on the upcoming Mars 2020 mission, the MarCO satellites represent a demonstration technology aimed to test CubeSat capabilities on an alien planet, as well as their resistance to the extreme radiation of deep space.

The MarCo satellites and the InSight Mars lander are expected to reach the red planet on November 26. While the lander's $813-million mission will carry on for about two years, studying the planet's subsurface structure and its seismic activity, the $18.5 million MarCO mission will end soon after the satellites' arrival on Mars.

The twin CubeSats are tasked with sending back radio data on the InSight's descent and landing on the Martian surface, as well as with demonstrating their cold-gas propulsion system. Afterwards, communication relay for the InSight mission will be taken over by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Until then, however, the trailblazing CubeSats have a long way to go. After this successful first image transmission, the twin satellites will attempt their first trajectory correction maneuvers later this month, NASA reported.

"This maneuver lets them steer towards Mars, blazing a trail for CubeSats to come," the space agency stated in a news release.