In a nod to the famous Pale Blue Dot image sent back by NASA's Voyager 1 deep space probe, the MarCO-B CubeSat has beamed its own image of the Earth and the Moon back to mission control while on its way to a flyby of Mars. Captured on May 9 using a fisheye lens, it was the first photo returned from the two MarCO (Mars Cube One) miniature spacecraft and was transmitted a day after they reached a distance of 1 million km (621.371 mi) from the Earth – by far the farthest distance reached by a CubeSat.
According to NASA, last Wednesday's photo of the Earth/Moon system was something of a happy accident. The actual purpose of the image was to confirm that MarCO-B had properly deployed its high-gain radio antenna – having the Earth in the frame was something of a bonus. The whole exercise is part of the shakedown phase of the mission when MarCO-A and MarCO-B undergo systems checks to make sure that everything aboard the twin probes is working as predicted.
Launched on May 5, 2018 atop an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California along with the InSight spacecraft, the two briefcase-sized craft are accompanying InSight on its way to Mars, but they are not a direct part of the geology lander's mission. Instead, their purpose is to act as technology demonstrators to determine if such small, simple satellites can operate over interplanetary distances.
This is of particular interest to NASA because, until now, CubeSats have only been used in low Earth orbit below an altitude of 800 km (497 mi). Though CubeSats were originally developed as an educational tool to train future space engineers, the technology has been increasingly adopted by scientists and engineers for gathering data at low cost. Now, it turns out, they can send home holiday snaps as well as any tourist.
"Consider it our homage to Voyager," says Andy Klesh, MarCO's chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. "CubeSats have never gone this far into space before, so it's a big milestone. Both our CubeSats are healthy and functioning properly. We're looking forward to seeing them travel even farther."
The next phase of the MarCO mission will take place at the end of the month when the two CubeSats will make the first course corrections for their close encounter with the Red Planet.
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