NASA's first deep space mini spacecraft go silent

09 Février, 2019, 00:13 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • NASA satellite MarCO-B took this image of Mars during its flyby of the Red Planet on Nov. 26 2018

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

Now well past Mars, the daring twins seem to have reached their limit.

A pair of small satellites that joined the InSight mission on its way to Mars haven't been heard from in over a month-but the experimental mission is still an important success for NASA.

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 United States space agency's scientists. 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.

Scientists relied on the mini machines, affectionately named Wall-E and Eve after the robots in the Pixar film WALL-E, to relay information about the status of the InSight lander as it touched down on the Red Planet in November.

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.

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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. Nicknamed "EVE" and "WALL-E" it is thought the spacecraft are now millions of miles beyond Mars. It's now more than 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometres) beyond Mars.

The mission team at JPL has several theories for why the spacecraft have been silent. WALL-E had a leaky thruster, which could cause "wobbling". "The brightness sensors that allow the CubeSats to stay pointed at the Sun and recharge their batteries could be another factor", NASA said. 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.

NASA has another chance to communicate with the MarCO spacecraft this summer when the duo starts to get closer to the sun and the potential to gather power for battery charging grows.

"This mission was always about pushing the limits of miniaturized technology and seeing just how far it could take us".

"We've put a stake in the ground", he said. But it's rare for them to go adventuring so far from home. JPL said they still have a number of the critical spare parts that can be used to build more CubeSats. That includes their experimental radios, antennas and propulsion systems. NASA has, in recent years, shown a growing interest in using cubesats for a wide range of science missions, initially in Earth orbit but also potentially elsewhere in the solar system.

More small spacecraft are on the way.

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