JPL-Built CubeSats Send Back First-Ever Mars Image Snapped by the Low-Cost Spacecraft

Published : Monday, October 22, 2018 | 2:31 PM

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. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

One of NASA’s Mars Cube One – a pair of briefcase-sized spacecraft that engineers and technicians at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena assembled and now manage as they fly through space – have sent an image of Mars snapped on October 3, the first ever produced by the tiny, low-cost spacecraft that launched in May along with the stationary Mars lander InSight.

The image was taken by a wide-angle camera on top of Mars Cube One-B – or MarCO-B – as it tested its exposure settings. The image showed Mars as a small red dot in the distance, It also showed parts related to the spacecraft’s high-gain antenna visible on either side of the image. The image was taken from a distance of roughly eight million miles from Mars.

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

NASA launched InSight on May 5 from Central California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base intending to land it on Mars on November 26. The CubeSats rode along with it until the Atlas V 401 launch vehicle that carried them left Earth’s orbit.

MarCO’s primary mission was to find out if these low-cost spacecraft could survive the journey to deep space and to monitor the InSight lander for a short period before landing on the Red Planet.

The MarCOs are effectively “chasing” Mars, which is a moving target as it orbits the Sun.

The JPL engineers who assembled the twin spacecraft – officially called MarCO-A and MarCO-B – nicknamed them “EVE” and “Wall-E” after the fictional space robots in the Disney movie.

After the first image, the MarCO mission, led by JPL, hopes to produce more images as the CubeSats approach Mars ahead of November 26. That’s when they’ll demonstrate their communications capabilities while InSight attempts to land on the Red Planet. They won’t be alone doing that job, since NASA’s Mars orbiters will be relaying muchu of the spacecraft’s data back to Earth.

In order to be in place for InSight’s landing, the CubeSats have to travel roughly 53 million miles more. They have already traveled 248 million miles or about 399 million kilometers.

For more information about the MarCO mission, visit







blog comments powered by Disqus