Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Speaking of Science: Itsy-bitsy space cameras

Speaking of Science
Talk nerdy to us

One of NASA's twin MarCO spacecraft captured this image of Mars, the first time a CubeSat — a kind of low-cost, briefcase-size spacecraft — has taken a photograph from beyond Earth. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Never before has such an itsy-bitsy satellite traveled so far from its home planet. And never before have scientists seen space through its wide-angle camera eyes.

This image of Mars was captured Oct. 3 by MarCO-B, one of the twin tiny spacecraft sent to the Red Planet alongside NASA's InSight mission. It is a "CubeSat" — a miniature satellite made at low cost from off-the-shelf materials in an effort to democratize space research.

MarCO-B (which engineers nicknamed WALL-E, for the Pixar character) and its twin MarCO-A (called EVE) are no bigger than briefcases and weigh less than 40 pounds. If all goes according to plan, the tiny satellites should arrive in orbit to photograph the InSight lander as it makes its descent to the Martian surface Nov. 26.

The interchangeable boxes that constitute each satellite were reportedly inspired by the four-inch plastic cubes used to display Beanie Babies. Usually, CubeSats are launched into low Earth orbit by student researchers, commercial groups and nations with small space programs. They've been equipped with technology from every conceivable discipline for a wide range of scientific research: cameras for environmental sensing, particle detectors for space weather protection, packets of microbes to help researchers understand how life might survive far from Earth.

This spring, MarCOs A and B became the first CubeSats to leave their home planet, rocketing through the void of space at a pace of roughly 1 million miles a day.

Earlier this month, the Mars Cube One team, which operates the satellites, programmed MarCO-B to rotate in space and take several test images of its distant, dusty target. Captured from 8 million miles away, Mars is just a pale red dot, but mission manager Cody Colley said in a statement that "finally seeing the planet is definitely a big win for the team."

— Sarah Kaplan

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