NASA’s first image of Mars from a CubeSat

The first image of the Red Planet ever produced by this class of tiny, low-cost spacecraft.

One of the twin MarCO CubeSats snapped this image of Mars on Oct. 3. Image:NASA
One of the twin MarCO CubeSats snapped this image of Mars on Oct. 3. Image: NASA

On May 5, 2018, NASA launched a stationary lander called InSight to Mars. Riding along with InSight were two CubeSats- the first of this kind of spacecraft to fly to deep space. The two CubeSats called MarCO-A and MarCO-B are designed to monitor InSight for a short period around the landing. Now, one of the twin MarCO CubeSats snapped this image of Mars.

The captured image is the first image of the Red Planet ever produced by this class of tiny, low-cost spacecraft. A wide-angle camera on top of MarCO-B produced the image as a test of exposure settings.

This image was taken from a distance of roughly 8 million miles (12.8 million kilometers) from Mars. The MarCOs are “chasing” Mars, which is a moving target as it orbits the Sun. In order to be in place for InSight’s landing, the CubeSats have to travel roughly 53 million miles (85 million kilometers). They have already traveled 248 million miles (399 million kilometers).

One of NASA's twin MarCO spacecraft took this image of Mars on October 2 -- the first time a CubeSat, a kind of low-cost, briefcase-sized spacecraft -- has done so. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
One of NASA’s twin MarCO spacecraft took this image of Mars on October 2 — the first time a CubeSat, a kind of low-cost, briefcase-sized spacecraft — has done so. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To take the image, the MarCO team had to program the CubeSat to rotate in space so that the deck of its boxy “body” was pointing at Mars. After several test images, they were excited to see that clear, red pinprick.

Scientists are further expecting that the mission will produce more images as the CubeSats approach Mars ahead of Nov. 26.

Cody Colley, MarCO’s mission manager at JPL said, “We’ve been waiting six months to get to Mars. 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.”