A tiny spacecraft nicknamed ‘Wall-E’ shot this pale-blue-dot shot of Earth from more than 600,000 miles away

By Tom Yulsman | May 16, 2018 10:57 am

‘Wall-E’ is one of a pair of CubeSats that’s following a lander spacecraft as it cruises toward Mars

Earth as a pale blue dot

The first image captured by one of NASA’s Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats. The image, which shows both the CubeSat’s unfolded high-gain antenna at right and the Earth and its moon in the center, was acquired by MarCO-B, nicknamed ‘Wall-E’, on May 9. (Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was cruising outward in the solar system, heading toward interstellar space. The late Carl Sagan, a member of the Voyager imaging team, had the idea of pointing the spacecraft back toward home for one last look.

Pale Blue Dot

Voyager’s Pale Blue Dot image. Can you spot Earth? (Source: NASA/JPL)

The result was an image that Sagan made famous in his 1994 book “Pale Blue Dot” — an image showing Earth as a barely visible bluish dot.

Now, we have another pale blue dot image, this one captured by a tiny CubeSat spacecraft, one of a pair that’s shadowing NASA’s InSight lander to Mars. The two briefcase-sized CubeSats, known collectively as Mars Cube One, or MarCO, will serve as a communications relay system when InSight attempts to land on the Red Planet, transmitting status information back to Earth.

On May 9, the CubeSats were more than 600,000 miles from Earth. One of then, called MarCO-B — and affectionately known as “Wall-E” to the MarCO team — used a fisheye camera to snap its first photo. The image helped mission engineers confirm that the spacecraft’s high-gain antenna had unfolded properly.

You can see the antenna in the image at the top of this post — as well as a bonus: Earth, once again seen as a pale blue dot, and the Moon, seen as an even tinier speck.

“Consider it our homage to Voyager,” said Andy Klesh, MarCO’s chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, quoted in a NASA release. JPL built the CubeSats and leads the MarCO mission. “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.”

The InSight lander is scheduled to touch down on Mars on Nov. 26. It is designed to study the Red Planet’s deep interior for the first time. The shadowing CubeSats are tasked with transmitting data on how InSight is doing as it makes the challenging descent to the surface through the thin atmosphere of Mars.

NASA says the two tiny spacecraft are not essential to InSight’s success. They are, instead, intended as a kind of proof-of-concept for future missions to Mars.

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  • Mike Richardson

    Though they can’t currently do all the things the larger, more expensive space probes can, the CubeSats do show the potential for less expensive modular probes that can perform specific tasks. Because of their small size and standardized design, they could be quickly modified for limited missions and piggybacked on other launches as opportunities arise. This also means universities and private research groups could take part in space exploration using versatile and inexpensive CubeSat platforms for instrument packages.

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ImaGeo

ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.

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