A Pale Blue Dot, As Seen by a CubeSat

NASA’s Voyager 1 took a classic
portrait of
Earth
from several billion miles away in 1990.
Now a class of tiny, boxy
spacecraft, known as CubeSats, have
just taken their own version of a “pale
blue dot” image,
capturing Earth and its moon in one shot.

NASA set a new distance record for CubeSats on May 8 when
a
pair of CubeSats called Mars Cube One (MarCO) reached 621,371
miles (1
million kilometers) from Earth. One of the CubeSats,
called MarCO-B (and affectionately
known as “Wall-E” to the
MarCO team) 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.

“Consider it our homage to Voyager,” said Andy
Klesh, MarCO’s
chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena,
California. JPL built the CubeSats and leads the MarCO mission.
“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 MarCO spacecraft are the first CubeSats ever launched
to
deep space. Most never go beyond Earth orbit; they generally
stay below 497
miles (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
Nov. 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. But 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 maneuver
lets
them steer towards Mars, blazing a trail for CubeSats to
come.

For more information
about MarCO, visit:

https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/cubesat/missions/marco.php

News Media Contact

Andrew Good
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-393-2433
andrew.c.good@jpl.nasa.gov

2018-099

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