Mars-bound CubeSats catch first glimpse of the Red Planet
Back in May, NASA launched some extra luggage along with the Mars InSight lander – two briefcase-sized CubeSats named MarCO-A and MarCO-B. These two little spacecraft are the first of their kind to venture into deep space, and now they've sent us back a post card of their first glimpse of the Red Planet.
The image, snapped by MarCO-B on October 3, shows Mars as a tiny, pale red dot towards the right of frame, much like the "Pale Blue Dot" photo they sent as they whizzed away from Earth. To line up the shot, the CubeSat had to be programmed to rotate in space to point the wide-angle camera towards Mars.
A few onboard instruments photobomb the image too: part of a thermal blanket can be seen at the top left, and below that the antenna feed peeks in. The right-hand side of the image is framed by the high gain antenna.
The photo was taken from a distance of about 8 million miles (12.8 million km), but interestingly the journey to Mars will still involve another 53 million miles (85 million km) because the Red Planet is moving away from the CubeSats.
Once they arrive at Mars, the two MarCOs will help relay communications back to Earth as the InSight lander touches down. That said, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will do most of the heavy lifting there – the MarCO mission is mostly a test to see if CubeSats are able to survive the rigors of space travel.
NASA seems to be regarding them as fairly expendable, and that's kind of the point – thanks to their small size, CubeSats are much cheaper and simpler than conventional car-sized (at least) spacecraft. Until now, CubeSats have only been launched into Earth orbit, where they've been put to work monitoring weather, hunting for exoplanets, cleaning up space debris, or even testing how to grow vegetables in space for future human missions.
If the MarCO mission succeeds, it could clear the way for other deep space CubeSats. Plans are in motion to send the little craft to the Moon, asteroids, and possibly even on high-speed interstellar trips to Alpha Centauri.
The MarCO CubeSats are due to arrive at Mars on November 26.
Source: NASA JPL