The Pale Blue Dot image of Earth, snapped by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990, is one of the most famous images of our planet ever taken. Now, a tiny spacecraft has taken a new image to rival its splendour.
On May 8 NASA sent its InSight mission to Mars, a lander that will attempt to find “marsquakes” on the Red Planet. Hitching a ride on the mission, however, were two tiny CubeSats officially known as MarCO-A (Mars Cube One) and MarCO-B. They’re more affectionately called Eve and Wall-E respectively, an homage to the Pixar film of the latter’s name.
A day after the launch, Wall-E used its fisheye camera to check that its high-gain antenna had properly unfolded. But the picture was photobombed by two pesky intruders, Earth and the Moon.
"Consider it our homage to Voyager," Andy Klesh, MarCO's chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.
The image was taken more than 1 million kilometers (620,000 miles) from Earth, and shows just what our planet and the Moon look like separated by about 380,000 kilometers (240,000 miles). Voyager’s famous photo, shot from 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) away, was so distant you couldn’t separate the two.
The two mini spacecraft, each about the size of a briefcase, are essentially a technology demonstration. They will practice relaying communications from the InSight lander back to Earth during the landing on November 26, 2018.
If successful, this could provide a cheaper and easier way for future landers to Mars to communicate with Earth, without having to rely on a relay satellite. If they fail, however, the overall mission won’t be hampered, as InSight will be using NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to talk to us.
CubeSats themselves are a relatively new breed of satellites, allowing scientists and engineers to conduct experiments and tests in space at a much lower cost than launching a fully-fledged spacecraft. Eve and Wall-E have now traveled further into space than any other CubeSats.
"CubeSats have never gone this far into space before, so it's a big milestone," said Klesh. "Both our CubeSats are healthy and functioning properly. We're looking forward to seeing them travel even farther."
There will be another first at the end of this month, when the CubeSats – separated from the InSight lander – test out their onboard propulsion systems. No CubeSat has ever corrected its trajectory in such a way before, a necessity if these two companions want to get to Mars.