Nasa's first mini-spacecraft in deep space go silent

Olive Hawkins
February 9, 2019

"This mission was always about pushing the limits of miniaturized technology and seeing just how far it could take us", said in a statement Andy Klesh, the mission's chief engineer at JPL.

The craft are known as Mars Cube One (MarCO).

The two Mars Cube One satellites, the small CubeSats that took off towards the Red Planet in May 2018, went "dark" with no apparent reason, puzzling NASA which doesn't know why that happened. WALL-E has a "leaky thruster", which could be affected by attitude-control issues and cause it to "wobble and lose the ability to send and receive commands". They're created to fly along behind NASA's InSight lander on its cruise to Mars. But if they don't, NASA said the MarCO mission has been a "spectacular success" and will provide a blueprint for other cubesats in the future. Trajectory data suggests that Wall-E is more than 1 million miles past Mars with EVE being almost 2 million miles past Mars.

The MarCO CubeSats were launched past year to test if such low-priced technology can operate in deep space. They both start inching closer to the Sun this summer, and the team will attempt to contact them again.

The twins, nicknamed EVE and WALL-E after characters from a Pixar film, served as communications relays during the InSight's Mars landing, beaming back data at each stage of its descent to the Martian surface in near-real time, along with InSight's first image. WALL-E is now over 1.6 million kilometres away from Mars and EVE has ventured even further - 3.2 million kilometres from the Red Planet.

The MarCOs are in orbit around the Sun and will only get farther away as February wears on.

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Nasa has several theories about why it has lost contact with the pair - none of which involve the interference of aliens. If the brightness sensors that keep them pointing at the Sun have malfunctioned, the batteries may be unable to recharge. "The farther they are, the more precisely they need to point their antennas to communicate with Earth", NASA JPL said in a statement. It's unknown if the batteries or any other components will last that long, however. NASA plans to repurpose some of the spare parts used in their construction, such as antennas, experimental radios, and propulsion systems, to build additional CubeSats scheduled to launch in the near future.

After that, the team said if they made it that far it would already be a major success.

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

NASA now hope to use the technology for further projects with John Baker, MarCO programme manager concluding that there is "big potential" in the small packages.

More small spacecraft are on the way.

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