Published: Sat, February 09, 2019
Research | By Raquel Erickson

NASAs first mini-spacecraft in deep space go silent

NASAs first mini-spacecraft in deep space go silent

While the two Mars Cube One satellites have launched towards Mars as a test project for advanced communication systems in deep space, the fact that they went "dark" is puzzling the U.S. space agency's scientists. The two probes were launched along with the InSight Mars lander and helped NASA watch its descent to the Red Planet. "Future CubeSats might go even farther", Andy Klesh, the mission's chief engineer said.

An artist's impression of WALL-E and EVE in Mars. As InSight landed on Mars, the MarCO cubesats flew by the planet, serving as communications relays to allow controllers to get real-time telemetry from InSight as it landed.

WALL-E also sent back the first incredible images of Mars while EVE also collected radio data.

Collectively known as MarCO, the pair launched previous year and were purely a speculative mission to see if they were able to operate in deep space.

The success of the MarCO mini satellites - named WALL-E and EVE in honor of the futuristic Pixar flick (which isn't as good as A Bug's Life) - was a long shot for NASA from the start.

MarCO launched to Mars behind the InSight mission and were meant to act as relays for data during each stage of the InSight landing process in near-real time, that mission was a success.

Although the team will re-attempt to contact the CubeSats at that time, it is doubtful whether their batteries and other parts will last that long, as the farther they are, the more precisely they need to point their antennas to communicate with Earth.

Another possibility is that their brightness sensors malfunctioned, meaning they won't be able to determine where the sun is.

The MarCO spacecraft were 6U cubesats launched in May 2018 as secondary payloads on the Atlas 5 that sent the InSight mission to Mars.

The mission team fears that the pair of spacecraft has attitude-control issues that are preventing them from communicating with Earth. They are orbiting the sun and by that time, the two will come much closer to Earth.

The two Marc Cube One satellites will move again toward the Sun during the summer. The team will reattempt to contact the CubeSats at that time, though whether their batteries and other parts will last that long cannot be predicted.

Even if they're never revived, the team considers MarCO a spectacular success. That includes their experimental radios, antennas and propulsion systems. Several of these systems were provided by commercial vendors, making it easier for other CubeSats to use them as well.

With EVE and WALL-E's success, NASA is set to continue launching a variety of new CubeSats in the coming years.

More small spacecraft are on the way.

"There's big potential in these small packages", said John Baker, the MarCO program manager, on Tuesday.

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