In 1990, NASA’s Voyager 1 space probe was instructed to take one final image of Earth before it left the Solar System and entered interstellar space, at the request of renowned astronomer and author Carl Sagan.
In the picture, which was taken from a record distance of about 3.7 billion miles, Earth appears to be smaller than a single pixel—a “pale blue dot” set against the vastness of space, as Sagan described it in a speech at Cornell University.
Now, a tiny spacecraft known as MarCO-B has just taken its own version of the “pale blue dot” image from an admittedly smaller distance of more than 620,000 miles, in which both the Earth and the Moon are visible as tiny specks.
MarCO-B, affectionately known as “Wall-E” to its operators, used a fisheye camera to take the photo on May 9, as part of a process to confirm that the spacecraft’s high-gain antenna had properly unfolded. As a bonus, the team captured the Earth and the Moon in the shot.
"Consider it our homage to Voyager," said Andy Klesh from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California.
MarCO-B is a CubeSat—a class of small, cube-shaped spacecraft that were originally designed to teach university students about satellites. They are now a major commercial technology, providing data on everything from environmental changes to shipping routes.
MarCO-B and its twin, MarCO-A, are the first CubeSats ever launched into deep space—most never go beyond Earth’s orbit. They are currently traveling towards Mars in support of NASA’s InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) robotic lander, which will attempt to touch down on the Red Planet on November 26.
The MarCOs will beam back data to Earth using their high-gain antennas—should they complete their journey—as InSight enters the thin Martian atmosphere. Findings from the mission could help expand the use of CubeSats in the future, according to NASA scientists.
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