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On The Way To Mars, NASA Satellite Snaps A Photo Of Earth And Moon

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The MarCO CubeSats accompanying the InSight lander headed to Mars wanted to check if the journey is going well, so it snapped a photo of its antenna. But there were a couple of photobombers.   ( NASA | JPL )

Remember the Pale Blue Dot? A photograph of Earth taken by Voyager 1 space probe in 1990 at 6 billion kilometers — about 3.7 billion miles — away? It was renowned astronomer Carl Sagan who asked NASA to take that photo.

He said it wouldn't have any scientific value. After all, Earth is too far away to make out fine details of its surface. However, he said that by taking it, humans would be able to see just how little we are in the grand scale of the universe.

The Pale Blue Dot

As they always say, history repeats itself. One of the CubeSats that was part of NASA's InSight launch earlier this month got a chance to snap a photo of Earth and moon, an homage to the Voyager mission's Pale Blue Dot. It's less visually pleasing than the original, but the purpose of such a shot — to remind us of our place in the universe — remains the same.

"Consider it our homage to Voyager," said Andy Klesh, MarCO's chief engineer. "CubeSats have never gone this far into space before, so it's a big milestone. Both our CubeSats are healthy and functioning properly. We're looking forward to seeing them travel even farther."

MarCO CubeSats

The CubeSats, named MarCO-A and -B, are the latest experiments to test the suitability of pint-size craft for exploration of the solar system. They are the first CubeSats ever sent into deep space as in the past, they've only been limited to orbit. But that changed on May 5, when the InSight mission launched.

When MarCO were about a million kilometers away from Earth — or around 621,371 miles — engineers unfolded its high-gain antenna to check if things were going smoothly. A fisheye camera attached to the chassis snapped a photo to inform mission control that everything was fine. However, as a bonus, that photo included Earth and moon in full view. It's a bit hard to make out the two, so NASA released an annotated photo highlighting them.

If the MarCO CubeSats make it to Mars safely, they will try to relay data about InSight back to Earth as the lander enters the Martian atmosphere and makes a landing. MarCO, however, will not collect any scientific data. They're intended purely as a technology demonstration, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory notes.

The InSight lander is expected to reach Mars this November. The plan is to get the CubeSats close enough to the planet to be able to relay data back to Earth.

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