NASA satellite MarCO-B took this image of Mars during its flyby of the Red Planet on Nov. 26 2018. NASA JPL-Caltech
09 February, 2019, 10:53
The MarCO CubeSats that were launched previous year have been unable to communicate with NASA. It's been over a month since engineers have heard from MarCO, which followed NASA's InSight to the Red Planet. The MarCOs will be the first CubeSats - a kind of modular, mini-satellite - flown into deep space. Despite losing contact with the two spacecraft, NASA still considers the mission a complete success as they could still talk to them despite being so deep in space.
When InSight landed on the red planet in November, MarCO - composed of CubeSats nicknamed EVE and WALL-E after Pixar film characters - relayed the lander's signals to mission control, beaming back data at each stage of the descent to the Martian surface.
WALL-E, which had been leaking fuel since liftoff last May, last radioed back on December 29.
Placed into an elliptical solar orbit, both CubeSats, whose $18.5-million cost was funded by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, are now well past Mars. 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.
It's now more than 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) beyond Mars.
The mission team has several theories for why they haven't been able to contact the pair.
Wall-E and Eve were launched past year in May.
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It's known that WALL-E has a leaky thruster, which could be causing communication problems. They are in orbit around the sun and the farther they are, the more hard it would be to contact them. "The farther they are, the more precisely they need to point their antennas to communicate with Earth", NASA JPL said in a statement.
Both spaceships will start moving towards the sun this summer and it's hoped they will spring back to life. It's unknown if the batteries or any other components will last that long, however.
Even if they're never revived, the team considers MarCO a spectacular success.
"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. "Future CubeSats might go even farther", Klesh added.
The MarCO spacecraft were 6U cubesats launched in May 2018 as secondary payloads on the Atlas 5 that sent the InSight mission to Mars. 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.
This paves the way for new CubeSats that NASA will launch.
"CubeSats have incredible potential to carry cameras and science instruments out to deep space", said John Baker, JPL's program manager for small spacecraft. The satellites have not communicated with the government space agency for more than a month, NASA said on Tuesday.
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