Earlier this month, a tiny NASA satellite captured its first snapshot of Mars. And, while we’ve seen plenty of spectacular photos that unravel the secrets of the red planet — taken by Mars orbiters and rovers both from space and from the Martian ground — the news is extremely significant.
Unveiled yesterday by the space agency, this is the first-ever image of Mars taken by a CubeSat — an experimental class of mini-satellites designed to demonstrate the novel technology.
The new Mars photo was taken by one of the MarCO satellites — twin CubeSats sent to investigate the red planet alongside NASA’s InSight mission, as reported by the Inquisitr. While NASA has an entire host of CubeSats at its disposal, these are the first-ever mini-satellites to venture outside Earth’s orbit and head out to explore another planet.
Nicknamed “Wall-E” and “Eve” — after the famous Pixar characters — the MarCO CubeSats beamed back their first photo of Earth a few days after their May 5 launch, the Inquisitr reported at the time. Five months later, the satellites now have Mars in their sight — and on camera.
The photo was taken on October 2 by the MarCO-B satellite, also known as “Wally-E” — the same CubeSat that snapped the photo of Earth on May 9.
Captured from a distance of roughly 8 million miles (12.8 million kilometers), the image portrays Mars as “The Pale Red Dot,” NASA officials wrote on Twitter on October 22. The statement echoes the “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft.
The snapshot showcases Mars as a small red dot in the lower right corner, framed by elements of the satellite’s high-gain antenna. The photo was taken after several tests, in which the MarCO team back on Earth programmed the CubeSat “to rotate in space so that the deck of its boxy ‘body’ was pointing at Mars,” NASA explained in the photo release.
So far, the MarCO CubeSats have traveled 248 million miles (399 million kilometers) on their long journey to Mars — with roughly 53 million miles (85 million kilometers) to go until they reach their destination.
“We’ve been waiting six months to get to Mars,” said Cody Colley, who manages the MarCO mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The cruise phase of the mission is always difficult, so you take all the small wins when they come. Finally seeing the planet is definitely a big win for the team.”
First-ever image of Mars from a CubeSat! On Oct. 2, one of our twin #MarCO satellites took this image. The pair has about 53 million miles left to reach Mars. They'll demo communications during @NASAInSight's Nov. 26 landing on the Red Planet. Look closer: https://t.co/6FfMBOnrDC pic.twitter.com/RajKnGaM1m— NASA (@NASA) October 22, 2018
The tiny spacecraft are no bigger than a briefcase and are currently trailing behind the InSight spacecraft — which next month will be deploying a lander on the red planet. Short for Mars Cube One, the MarCO twin satellites will be following the InSight lander as it attempts to touch down on Mars come November 26 and keep us apprised on the spacecraft’s entry, descent, and landing sequence.
Nevertheless, their mission is strictly about demonstrating CubeSat technology, as the InSight landing will rely mainly on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for communication relay.