Published: Sat, February 09, 2019
Sci-tech | By April Francis

Lost in space: NASA satellites DISAPPEAR in 'deep space' after Mars mission

Lost in space: NASA satellites DISAPPEAR in 'deep space' after Mars mission

The MarCO CubeSats were launched a year ago to test if such low-priced technology can operate in deep space. "MarCO was there to relay information back from InSight in real time, and we did that extraordinarily well", said Andy Klesh, MarCO chief engineer, at a press conference at JPL immediately after the successful InSight landing November 26.

The twin cubesats that played a key role in NASA's most recent Mars lander mission have been out of contact with the Earth for more than a month, suggesting their trailblazing mission has come to an end.

NASA's first interplanetary mission to use a class of mini-spacecraft has fallen silent in deep space and it is unlikely that they will be heard again, the United States space agency has said. Mission scientists will then attempt to regain contact with them, but even if that fails, the MarCO mission is viewed as a success and a milestone in the use of this new, still-experimental technology.

In a February 5 statement, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said that it not heard from either of the Mars Cube One, or MarCO, cubesats since the beginning of the year.

Now, as they move further away from Mars, both CubeSats, nicknamed Wall-E and Eve, have fallen silent.

"This mission was always about pushing the limits of miniaturized technology and seeing just how far it could take us". JPL said they still have a number of the critical spare parts that can be used to build more CubeSats.

The mission team has several theories for why they have not been able to contact the pair.

According to a blog post published on Tuesday, Feb. 5, WALL-E and EVE (named after Pixar's Oscar-winning 2008 animated movie) are more than 1 million and nearly 2 million miles past Mars respectively.

The MarCOs won't start moving toward the Sun again until this summer.

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

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

"We've put a stake in the ground", he said.

Mars Cube One, or MarCO, consisted of two 14kg satellites named WALL-E and EVE.

Problems with attitude control, which involves the orientation of spacecraft in three-dimensional space so they directly point toward their targets, such as the Sun or Earth, could be causing both CubeSats to wobble, leaving them unable to receive commands or communicate. 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. That includes their experimental radios, antennas and propulsion systems. Inside the dome, the seismometer is also contained in a titanium, vacuum-sealed container, the combination of which helps insulate the instrument even further from environmental hazards.

More small spacecraft are on the way.

"There's big potential in these small packages", said John Baker, the MarCO program manager at JPL, in the statement.

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