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MarCO mission snaps first CubeSat photo of Mars

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.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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