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NASA's Mars Cube One takes photo of Earth and Moon

16 May 2018

Almost 30 years after Voyager 1 sent back to Earth a photo of humanity's home planet, taken from several billion miles away, the two CubeSats, nicknamed by NASA engineers Wall-E and Eva, did the same, but from a distance of only 621,371 miles (1 million kilometers).

The "Wall-E" CubeSat took a "pale blue dot image" of Earth and the moon from more than 600 thousand miles away.

MarCO-B is a CubeSat-a class of small, cube-shaped spacecraft that were originally created to teach university students about satellites.

Mimi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said: 'The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000ft (12,200m).

By receiving MarCO-B's first snapshot of Earth, the space agency now has confirmation that the satellites have successfully deployed their high-gain antennas as well.

In 1990, NASA's Voyager 1 space probe was instructed to take one final image of Earth before it left the Solar System and entered interstellar space, at the request of renowned astronomer and author Carl Sagan. The satellite took the shot using its fisheye camera and beamed it back to Earth after the ground-control team properly unfolded its high-gain antenna on May 9.

"CubeSats have never gone this far into space before, so it's a big milestone", Klesh pointed out. "Both our Cubesats are healthy and functioning properly". They are trailing along after Insight on their very own mission to test their design against the rigors of traveling all the way to the red planet.

It takes from about four minutes to nearly as much as a half-hour for light to travel from Mars to Earth, depending on where the planets are in their orbits. 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 cubesats are following NASA's InSight lander to the red planet. MarCO's job is to act as a kind of chaperone to InSight Lander as it approaches Mars. Afterwards, communication relay for the InSight mission will be taken over by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Mars landings are notoriously challenging due to the Red Planet's thin atmosphere. While the lander's $813-million mission will carry on for about two years, studying the planet's subsurface structure and its seismic activity, the $18.5 million MarCO mission will end soon after the satellites' arrival on Mars.

InSight won't rely on the MarCO mission for data relay. "The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars".

NASA scientists weren't doing this for sport, but to see if the cubesat's antenna had unfolded - and worked. After this successful first image transmission, the twin satellites will attempt their first trajectory correction maneuvers later this month, NASA reported. This maneuver lets them steer towards Mars, blazing a trail for CubeSats to come.

NASA's Mars Cube One takes photo of Earth and Moon