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MarCO view of Mars
Mars shows up as a pale red dot on a picture taken by one of NASA’s twin MarCO spacecraft on Oct. 2. Click on the image for a larger version. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Photo)

Mars looks like nothing more than a reddish speck in a picture captured by one of NASA’s twin MarCO spacecraft, but it’s the start of something big for small satellites.

NASA says the image, released today, is the first view of Mars recorded by a class of nanosatellites known as CubeSats.

The briefcase-sized probes are part of a mission whose name is a contraction of “Mars Cube One,” and were launched from California along with NASA’s Mars InSight lander in May. They’re officially known as MarCO-A and MarCO-B — but they’ve been nicknamed WALL-E and EVE because they use propellant similar to the fire-extinguisher gas that the WALL-E robot used in the 2008 Pixar animated film.

Just a few days after liftoff, WALL-E’s wide-field color camera snapped a picture of Earth and the moon while checking on the deployment of its high-gain antenna. On Oct. 2, WALL-E did it again, this time looking 8 million miles ahead to Mars. The high-gain antenna can be seen to the right in the image, illuminated by sunlight.

The MarCO mission team had to program WALL-E to rotate in space so that the spacecraft’s deck was pointing toward Mars, and It took several test images to bring the Pale Red Dot into proper view.

“We’ve been waiting six months to get to Mars,” Cody Colley, MarCO’s mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a news release. “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.”

This is just the beginning of the mission’s climactic phase: The MarCO probes should be sending back more detailed images in the run-up to the big Mars encounter on Nov. 26, the Monday after Thanksgiving. Mars InSight is due to land on the plains of the Red Planet’s Elysium Planitia on that day while WALL-E and EVE sail past, making observations and sending data back to Earth.

It’s not yet clear what the MarCO probes will do after the flyby, but NASA is already making plans for more spacefaring CubeSats that’ll head to Earth’s moon, a mysterious icy moon of Jupiter called Europa and other far-out destinations.

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