- NASA’s InSight Mars lander launched on May 5 and will reach the red planet on November 26.
- But two small satellites, collectively called Mars Cube One, are also nearing the world.
- One of these backpack-size “CubeSat” spacecraft recently took a photo of Mars from 8 million miles away.
- Mars glows bright red-orange in the picture, but looks incredibly small – and even conquerable.
Mars is a sizable planet about nine times the mass of our moon. The latest scientific research suggests Mars, despite looking like a giant desert, may harbour enough subsurface water and warmth to support microbial life today.
The picture was taken from about 8 million miles away by one of two backpack-sized CubeSats, collectively known as Mars Cube One, or MarCO.
The two satellites – MarCO-A and MarCO-B, nicknamed by their creators “EVE” and “Wall-E,” respectively – launched on May 5. They hitched a ride with NASA’s car-sized InSight lander, which is scheduled to land on Mars on November 26.
The MarCO satellites are the smallest spacecraft ever flown past the moon. They’re also a crucial test for NASA to see how small it can shrink its spacecraft and how far it can send them into the solar system.
Travelling at a speed of about 6,200 mph, the two CubeSats have spent six months and logged some 248 million miles chasing Mars as the planet orbits the sun. NASA expects them both to slip into orbit as InSight lands, helping relay unprecedented data about the robot’s landing back to Earth in (relative) real time.
Until then, MarCO’s systems are being intermittently tested. On October 2, Mars swung into MarCO-B’s view during camera, rotation, and communications tests and snapped the photo below.
“We’ve been waiting six months to get to Mars,” Cody Colley, who manages the MarCO mission for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press release. “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.”
The picture was taken from 8 million miles away – cosmically close, since the red planet is an average of 140 million miles from Earth.
Yet Mars still looks like an infinitesimal red dot in the image. (The objects on the periphery are parts of the spacecraft.)
Previously, the MarCO team honored Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” image by using MarCO-B to photograph Earth from 621,371 miles away. Earth looked similarly feeble in that image.
On the flipside, the image shows Mars is not an infinite plane like the rest of the universe.
To someone like Elon Musk, who is trying to use his rocket company, SpaceX, to build a giant reusable spaceship capable of reaching the red planet, the picture might make Mars look that much more conquerable.
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