Science

NASA's Tiny Satellites Fall Silent After Proving New Tech at Mars

NASA's Tiny Satellites Fall Silent After Proving New Tech at Mars”

Two CubeSats were launched together with InSight and acted as test subjects for future missions. "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.

Having travelled well past Mars, the twin CubeSats seem to have reached their limit, Nasa said in a statement. In a new post by NASA, scientists reveal that it's now been over a month since either of the MarCO CubeSats made contact with Earth, and nobody knows if we'll ever hear from them again.

In any case, the NASA team considers MarCO a "spectacular success" since they have shown that such small (the size of a briefcase) and relatively cheap (around $18.5 million per mission) satellites can operate in deep space.

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

WALL-E, which last communicated with Earth on December 29, is slightly more than one million miles (1.6 million kilometers) beyond the Red Planet while EVE, which last contacted Earth on January 4, is close to two million miles (3.2 million kilometers) past Mars.

The MarCO spacecraft were 6U cubesats launched in May 2018 as secondary payloads on the Atlas 5 that sent the InSight mission to Mars.

It's believed WALL-E is now more than one million miles past Mars whilst EVE is nearly two million miles away from the Red Planet.

WALL-E has a leaky thruster, and attitude-control issues could be causing them to wobble and lose the ability to send and receive commands. The pair, nicknamed EVE and WALL-E, after Pixar's fictional robots, relayed information from InSight's descent.

An artist's impression of WALL-E and EVE in Mars.

In several months, the CubeSats' elliptical orbits will bring them closer to the Sun.

They may have suffered malfunctions affecting the brightness sensors which point them towards the sun, allowing solar panels to recharge the crafts' batteries. The team will reattempt to contact the CubeSats at that time, though it's anyone's guess whether their batteries and other parts will last that long. That includes their experimental radios, antennas and propulsion systems.

"We've put a stake in the ground", Klesh said in the JPL statement. "Future CubeSats might go even farther".

The systems used for the MarCOs are produced by commercial companies and are likely compatible with various other types of CubeSats. "They'll never replace the more capable spacecraft NASA is best known for developing".

"There's big potential in these small packages", said John Baker, the MarCO program manager at JPL, in the statement. "CubeSats - part of a larger group of spacecraft called SmallSats - are a new platform for space exploration that is affordable to more than just government agencies".



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