NASA’s latest photo of the red planet is not, by a long shot, its most striking.
But, the fuzzy snapshot of a tiny red speck in the sky marks a major breakthrough for low-cost spacecraft.
The space agency has shared a look at the first image of Mars to ever be captured by a CubeSat – a briefcase-sized satellite that researchers hope could revolutionize communication options for deep space missions.
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MarCO-B (Wall-E), snapped the first photo on October 3 with its wide-angle camera as a part of its instrument testing. At the time, the tiny satellite was 8 million miles (12.8 million kilometers) from Mars. Mars can be seen as the tiny red speck at the right side of the photo
NASA’s MarCO mission – headed by a pair of twin CubeSats nicknamed Eve and Wall-E – launched with the InSight Mars lander back in May.
Their goal is to show small, inexpensive spacecraft can quickly transmit information about InSight as it makes its approach to the red planet.
MarCO-B (Wall-E), snapped the first photo on October 3 with its wide-angle camera as a part of its instrument testing. At the time, the tiny satellite was 8 million miles (12.8 million kilometers) from Mars.
‘We’ve been waiting six months to get to Mars,’ said Cody Colley, MarCO’s mission manager at JPL.
‘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.’
According to NASA, the MarCOs are essentially chasing Mars as it orbits the sun. The pair have already traveled 248 million miles (399 million kilometers) since beginning the mission, and will need to travel another 53 million to be in the right place for InSight’s landing.
Researchers programmed the CubeSat to rotate in space to point its body toward Mars, allowing its wide-angle camera to get a direct view.
The pair is expected to capture more images before InSight’s Nov. 26 landing attempt, when they will demonstrate their communications capabilities.
NASA’s MarCO mission – headed by a pair of twin CubeSats nicknamed Eve and Wall-E – launched with the InSight Mars lander back in May. An artist’s rendering of the CubeSats is shown above
The goal of the CubeSats is to show small, inexpensive spacecraft can quickly transmit information about InSight as it makes its approach to the red planet
WHAT IS THE NASA MARS INSIGHT PROBE?
InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is scheduled to launch on Saturday, May 5, and land on Mars six months later.
A slender cylindrical probe dubbed the mole is designed to tunnel nearly 16 feet (five metres) into the Martian soil.
A quake-measuring seismometer, meanwhile, will be removed from the lander by a mechanical arm and placed directly on the surface for better vibration monitoring.
InSight is actually two years late flying because of problems with the French-supplied seismometer system that had to be fixed.
The 1,530-pound (694 kg) InSight builds on the design of the Phoenix lander and, before that, the Viking landers.
They’re all stationary three-legged landers, so not equipped to roam around.
Each CubeSat measures about 14.4 inches (36.6 centimeters) by 9.5 inches (24.3 centimeters) by 4.6 inches (11.8 centimeters), and is composed of six smaller box-shaped units.
While they will be playing a role in the landing efforts, the InSight mission will ultimately be relying on NASA’s Mars orbiters to relay data to Earth.
‘MarCO-A and B are our first and second interplanetary CubeSats designed to monitor InSight for a short period around landing, if the MarCO pair makes it to Mars,’ explained Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, earlier this year.
‘However, these CubeSat missions are not needed for InSight’s mission success. They are a demonstration of potential future capability.
‘The MarCO pair will carry their own communications and navigation experiments as they fly independently to the Red Planet.’