A flying briefcase captures a pink pinprick
NASA reveals all systems go for Mars-bound CubeSats, releasing historic photograph. Andrew Masterson reports.
Almost 13 million kilometres from its destination, a camera fixed on top of a spacecraft the size of a briefcase winks once, and history is made.
NASA has released this image – not much, of itself, but signifying a whole lot – as cautious proof that the contention underpinning the agency’s exciting CubeSat mission is bearing out.
On May 5, 2018, the space agency launched a lander called InSight, heading for Mars. It was bundled with two miniature satellites – CubeSats – each with rough dimensions of 37 by 24 by five centimetres.
In part, the CubeSats – officially designated as MarCO-A and MarCO-B, but nicknamed Eve and Wall-E – are intended to act as comms links for the lander when it swings into active duty and touches down on Mars in late November.
InSight, however, also has its own communications system. More basically, the briefcases were deployed as a test to see whether such tiny bits of equipment could survive the rigours of space travel.
The answer, it appears, at least thus far, is yes. Early in October, mission controllers activated the wide-angle camera on MarCO-B, just to see if it was operational. The result was a picture showing sections of the satellite’s antennae at each side, and a small red dot in the lower righthand quadrant.
That dot is the first ever image of Mars taken by one of this new class of spacecraft.
“We've been waiting six months to get to Mars,” says Cody Colley, MarCO's mission manager.
“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.”