NASA CubeSats capture farewell image of InSight's new home

InSight successfully touched down on Mars, but the work of two other robots pave the way for future missions -- as this farewell image shows.

Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
2 min read

In the wake of the incredibly good news that NASA's InSight stuck its Martian landing Monday, you'd be forgiven for letting the heroic efforts of MarCO A and B slip your mind. But they won't let you forget.

Snapped as a farewell, this image of Mars comes Monday from MarCO B, one of the two MarCO CubeSats originally launched on the same rocket that sent InSight on its course to the Red Planet. It might not look like much, but just like InSight's first image from the surface of Mars, it's an important milestone in space communications.

The two briefcase-sized CubeSats, nicknamed Wall-E and Eve, became the first and second CubeSats to go to deep space. After launching with InSight in May, the two satellites deployed their radio antennas and travelled along their own trajectories to the Red Planet. They weren't critical to the success of today's mission, but they did lend a helping hand.

Their chief role was to monitor InSight over the course of its somewhat scary descent in a communications support role -- relaying images and data from the entry, descent and landing phase. Data takes time to travel through space, but by using MarCO as communications relay satellites, information could be beamed back to Earth in a matter of minutes.

NASA InSight lander rocks its journey to Mars: A view in pictures

See all photos

MarCO, which stands for "Mars Cube One", was designed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and they were much smaller and cheaper to make than traditional satellites. That also means they are less bulky than the satellites and robots previously sent out to deep space and much easier to launch. So today, we get to reap the rewards of not just InSight's monumental landing, but those of the burgeoning new era in interplanetary satellites.

After their successful performance during Monday's landing, don't sleep on the CubeSat revolution. It's coming -- and it will benefit all of our future endeavours off-planet by improving how our space-faring robots get information back to Earth.

What of their fates? Well, the two CubeSats will continue on past Mars and remain in orbit around the sun until they run out of fuel. Then the intrepid, tiny explorers will go to that great spacecraft landing bay in the sky...

Thanks, WALL-E and EVE.

NASA's wildest rides: Extreme vehicles for Earth and beyond

See all photos

NASA turns 60: The space agency has taken humanity farther than anyone else, and it has plans to go further.

CNET's Holiday Gift Guide: The place to find the best tech gifts for 2018.