A few days after launching from the California coast, a satellite about the size of a briefcase looked back towards Earth and our lunar neighbor and snapped a picture. It’s nowhere near as iconic as Voyager 1’s ‘pale blue dot’ image back in 1990, but it’s still an incredible look at a tiny Earth.
The small CubeSat is part of a pair heading to Mars alongside NASA’s InSight lander.
On May 8, one day before the image above was captured, the Mars Cube One (MarCO) satellites set a new distance record for CubeSats as it reached 621,371 miles from Earth. And the pair is extending this record every day.
“CubeSats have never gone this far into space before, so it’s a big milestone,” says Andy Klesh, MarCO’s chief engineer and leader of the MarCO mission. “Both are CubeSats are healthy and functioning properly. We’re looking forward to seeing them travel even further.”
A MarCO CubeSat. Credit: NASA
MarCO’s final destination is Mars, but the tiny satellite pair won’t be collecting any science. What MarCO will be doing is acting as a technological demonstration. As InSight enters the Martian atmosphere, the pair of MarCO satellites will attempt to beam data about InSight’s descent back to Earth. If everything goes smoothly, NASA could look into sending a dedicated relay with future missions.
For InSight, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will handle day-to-day data relay duties.
MarCO’s potential success could also open the door for other ways to explore our solar system according to NASA. But MarCO’s success lies in another first for a CubeSat. Later this month, the pair of tiny satellites will attempt the first trajectory correction maneuvers ever done by a CubeSat.
Each MarCO satellite uses a single tank of compressed R236FA gas, the propellant used in fire extinguishers, to make course corrections. Eight thrusters give the team options for each correction. According to NASA, there are five opportunities to tweak the satellites’ trajectory during its six-month trek to Mars.
If the next six months go according to plan, MarCO-A and MarCO-B will be flying past Mars on November 26 just as the InSight lander enters Mars’ atmosphere. The satellite pair will grab as much data about InSight as it can and beam it to the Deep Space Network antenna in Madrid, Spain at a blistering 8 kilobits per second.