A briefcase-sized satellite tested at Cal Poly recently captured a historic photo of Mars – nearly 250 million miles from Earth.
A wide-angle camera connected to one of two identical CubeSat satellites took the photo about eight million miles from Mars on October 3 as a test for its exposure settings, according to Cal Poly's press release.
The satellites are called MarCO-A and MarCO-B – short for Mars Cube One – but they've been nicknamed "Eve" and "Wall-E" by their engineers, the press release said. (The satellites share their nicknames with a pair of robots from the 2008 animated movie "WALL-E.")
To capture the image, the engineers had to program Wall-E so that they turn in space, leaving the deck her "body" pointed to Mars, which is a moving target as it orbits the Sun, according to the release.
CubeSat technology was launched in 1999 by former Cal Poly Professor Jordi Puig-Suari and Stanford Professor Bob Twiggs, who launched satellites for universities, high schools and private companies accessible throughout the world.
Maroco satellites measuring 12 inches, 4 inches deep, and 8 inches wide arrived at the campus in San Luis Obispo on February 28, sources said.
Cal Poly engineers and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory spent the next 17 days integrating the satellites into the casks that launched each CubeSat into space, the press release said.
Launched by Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 5 aboard the Atlas V launch vehicle United Launch Alliance, Cal Poly said.
"We've been waiting for Mars for six months," says Cody Colley, MarCO's mission director at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the release. "The mission's journey phase is always difficult, so take all the small winnings as they come in. Finally, the planet is definitely a big win for the team."
The MarCO mission hopes to produce more images as the CubeSat satellites approach Mars on November 26, prior to a scheduled flyby publication ,
Cal Poly says the MarCO satellites are the first CubeSats to travel into space.
"Nobody would have imagined that 10 or 20 years ago," said Ryan Nugent, an aerospace engineer at Cal Poly.