NASA’s first mini satellites to travel into deep space have beamed back an image of the Earth and the Moon, which appear as a ‘pale blue dot’ and a tiny white speck floating in space.
NASA set a new distance record for CubeSats on May 8 when a pair of CubeSats – tiny satellites – called Mars Cube One (MarCO) reached one million kilometre from Earth.
One of the CubeSats, called MarCO-B used a fisheye camera to snap its first photo on May 9. That photo is part of the process used by the engineering team to confirm the spacecraft’s high-gain antenna has properly unfolded.
As a bonus, it captured Earth and its moon as tiny specks floating in space, researchers said.
“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,” said Andy Klesh, MarCO’s chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the US.
The MarCO spacecraft are the first CubeSats ever launched to deep space. Most never go beyond Earth orbit; they generally stay below 800 kilometers above the planet.
Though they were originally developed to teach university students about satellites, CubeSats are now a major commercial technology, providing data on everything from shipping routes to environmental changes.
The MarCO CubeSats were launched on May 5 along with NASA’s InSight lander, a spacecraft that will touch down on Mars and study the planet’s deep interior for the first time.
InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, will attempt to land on Mars on November 26. JPL also leads the InSight mission.
Mars landings are notoriously challenging due to the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere. The MarCO CubeSats will follow along behind InSight during its cruise to Mars.
Should they make it all the way to Mars, they will radio back data about InSight while it enters the atmosphere and descends to the planet’s surface.
The high-gain antennas are key to that effort; the MarCO team have early confirmation that the antennas have successfully deployed, but will continue to test them in the weeks ahead.
InSight won’t rely on the MarCO mission for data relay. That job will fall to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. However, the MarCOs could be a pathfinder so that future missions can “bring their own relay” to Mars.
They could also demonstrate a number of experimental technologies, including their antennas, radios and propulsion systems, which will allow CubeSats to collect science in the future.
Later this month, the MarCOs will attempt the first trajectory correction maneuvers ever performed by CubeSats. This manoeuver lets them steer towards Mars, blazing a trail for CubeSats to come.