NASA's first mini-spacecraft in deep space goes silent

NASA's first mini-spacecraft in deep space goes silent

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

The craft are known as Mars Cube One (MarCO). But it's rare for them to go adventuring so far from home.

Engineers speculate WALL-E and EVE might be wobbling and unable to point precisely to send messages, or there could be battery recharging issues.

NASA, meanwhile, is still trying to contact the Mars lander Opportunity, silenced last June by a global dust storm that prevented sunlight from reaching its solar panels.

NASA scientists were interested in testing whether CubeSats could survive deep space as a part of the InSight Mars Lander mission. Trajectory data suggests that Wall-E is more than 1 million miles past Mars with EVE being almost 2 million miles past Mars.

Called Mars Cube One or MarCO for short, the mini-satellites, each approximately the size of a briefcase and nicknamed WALL-E and EVE after characters in a Pixar film, were the first tiny satellites launched into deep space.

Both WALL-E and EVE were built at JPL.

They played a vital role during the recent landing of the InSight exploration craft on Mars, beaming back images of its descent in real time and also relaying data from the spaceship including its first picture from the Martian surface. They are in orbit around the sun and the farther they are, the more hard it would be to contact them.

Mission scientists have several theories as to why the CubeSats lost contact.

They will continue to fly away from Earth as February goes on which means receiving data even more hard.

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 InSight team will attempt to communicate with the MarCO satellites in the summer when they get closer to the Sun, according to a press release. 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.

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

JPL spokesman Andrew Good said February 5 that after the flyby the MarCO cubesats continued to transmit technical data about the performance of their various subsystems, including attitude control, propulsion and communications. Several of these systems were provided by commercial vendors, making it easier for other CubeSats to use them as well. NASA is set to launch a variety of new CubeSats in coming years.

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

More small spacecraft are on the way.

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