Smallest interplanetary probe snaps a picture of our Pale Blue Dot (and the moon)


Pale blue dotPale blue dot
The nanosatellite known as MarCO-B or Wall-E took this picture of Earth and the moon from a distance of more than 620,000 miles. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Photo)

You don’t have to fly beyond the orbit of Neptune to see our home planet as a Pale Blue Dot. One of the first nanosatellites to travel beyond Earth orbit has proven that in a new version of the view first made famous by “Cosmos” astronomer Carl Sagan.

This picture, showing Earth as a bluish speck and the moon as a faint blip, was captured by one of the two MarCO CubeSats that were launched toward Mars on May 5 as piggyback payloads for NASA’s Mars InSight mission.

Each of the MarCO (“Mars Cube One”) probes is roughly the size of a small briefcase, and stuffed with experimental equipment that will come into play during their Red Planet flyby in November.

Last week, the MarCO-B spacecraft (also known as Wall-E) snapped a picture with its wide-field color camera to check the deployment of its high-gain antenna.

The good news is that the pint-sized antenna has unfolded properly, as seen in the picture. The better news is that Earth and the moon showed up in the frame as well.

The view of our planet from more than 620,000 miles away is evocative of the photo that NASA’s Voyager 1 probe snapped in 1990 from a distance of 3.7 billion miles.

The 1990 photo showed Earth as a bluish speck of cosmic dust floating in a sunbeam. It inspired Sagan to write a book in which he called on humanity to “preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

In a news release, MarCO chief engineer Andy Klesh called Wall-E’s picture “our homage to Voyager.”

“CubeSats have never gone this far into space before, so it’s a big milestone,” Klesh said.. “Both our CubeSats are healthy and functioning properly. We’re looking forward to seeing them travel even farther.”

Over the next few months, MarCO-B and MarCO-A (nicknamed Eva) will use its miniaturized propulsion system to keep themselves on track for Mars. During the flyby, the two mini-probes will relay status information about the InSight lander’s descent and touchdown.

After that, Wall-E and Eva will continue zooming outward. And who knows? Maybe one of the probes will capture a snapshot of Mars’ pale red dot as it fades away in the distance.

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