The picture was taken by one of two tiny CubeSats that were launched together on May 5 as part of the InSight Lander project and are now heading to Mars. They are the first CubeSats ever sent into deep space as in the past, they've only been limited to orbit.
NASA has always been able to check out Mars on the ground with rovers and landers and from far above with orbital spacecraft.
Despite the "pale blue dot" photos' similarity, the two cubesats, known as MarCO-A and MarCO-B, are nowhere near as far afield as Voyager 1 was back in 1990. Since they're cubesats, each one fits inside a standard frame measuring 14.4 x 9.5 x 4.6-inches (36.6 x 24.3 x 11.8 centimeters).
"Consider it our homage to Voyager", Andy Klesh, MarCO's chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement, which also shows the CubeSat photograph of the Earth-Moon duo. Interestingly, the Earth appears as a mere pale blue dot in the image. As a bonus, the team captured the Earth and the Moon in the shot. The CubeSat used its fish-eye camera to capture the image and sent it back to Earth after the team successfully unfolded its high-gain antenna on May 9.
"Exploring the Red Planet with NASA's Mars Helicopter exemplifies a successful marriage of science and technology innovation and is a unique opportunity to advance Mars exploration for the future", said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington via an agency-issued release.
While the lander's $813-million mission will carry on for about two years, studying the planet's subsurface structure and its seismic activity, the $18.5 million MarCO mission will end soon after the satellites' arrival on Mars.
MarCO-A and MarCO-B, which were built at JPL, are conducting a demonstration mission - basically, their handlers aim to show that cubesats can indeed help explore distant destinations. The shadowing CubeSats are tasked with transmitting data on how InSight is doing as it makes the challenging descent to the surface through the thin atmosphere of Mars. They're also testing a few specific technologies, including a propulsion system that uses the same cold, compressed gas commonly found in fire extinguishers. "The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars". It, among other things, is scheduled to burrow 10 to 16 feet into the planet's crust, giving scientists new insights into Mars' interior.
Earlier this month, NASA launched its InSight probe, expected to land near Mars' equator in November.
If the tech fails, the mission will not be affected and all NASA will potentially lose is the money spent developing the helicopter.