Martian Cubesats to Broadcast Mars Landing

Nov. 25, 2018: For the first time ever, cubesats are approaching Mars. Their mission: To experience 7 minutes of terror. If all goes as planned, on Monday the two tiny spacecraft will watch NASA’s InSight lander touchdown on the Red Planet, relaying updates to Earth in near-real time.

PIA22316_hires_crop

InSight is the latest NASA probe to land on Mars–or disintegrate in the attempt. On Nov. 26th, it will tear through the planet’s atmosphere in a fireball, shedding more than 12,000 mph of velocity in just under 7 minutes. NASA hopes InSight will touchdown gently on the plains of Elysium Planitia where it can drill into Mars, using seismometers, heat flow sensors, and radios to study the planet’s interior.

Officially the two cubesats are known as MarCO-A and MarCO-B, but JPL engineers have nicknamed them “WALL-E” and “Eva.” They were launched alongside the lander on May 5, 2018. Mission controllers weren’t even sure the tiny spacecraft would survive the journey across interplanetary space–but they did. Now they will act as radio relay stations. Instead of waiting several hours for InSight to report back to Earth, WALL-E and Eva will relay entry, descent and landing data much sooner. This is the first time cubesats have traveled beyond Earth orbit, so it will be a significant achievement if they succeed.

NASA will broadcast the landing on NASA TV starting at 2 p.m. EST on Monday, Nov. 26th. Tune in here.

Realtime Space Weather Photo Gallery

Mars Outshines Sirius

June 10, 2018: It’s official. Mars is now brighter than any star in the sky. Last week, the Red Planet surpassed Sirius in apparent luminosity. If you wake up before dawn, you can’t help noticing Mars burning through the morning twilight with a distinctive orange glow. This morning in Burgundy, France, photographer Jean-Baptiste Feldmann captured the planet shining over the castle Clos de Vougeot:

“It truly was brighter than any star in the sky,” says Feldmann.

What’s happening? Earth and Mars are converging for a close encounter–the best one in 15 years. On July 27th, Mars will be at opposition. Oppositions of Mars happen roughly every 2 years, but this one is special. It is a “perihelic opposition.” Mars will be near perihelion, its closest approach to the sun. Perihelic oppositions also bring Mars extra-close to Earth.

The last time this happened was on Aug. 27, 2003, when Mars famously made its closest approach to Earth in almost 60,000 years. Around the world, people organized “Mars parties” to celebrate the extraordinary size and brightness of the Red Planet. This July will be almost as good with Mars only a few percent farther away than it was during its historic encounter 15 years ago. Between now and then, Mars will triple in brightness, outshining even the giant planet Jupiter. Stay tuned for that!

Realtime Mars Photo Gallery