MarCo spacecraft unlikely to be heard from again says NASA

Cristina Cross
February 9, 2019

Even if they are never revived, the team considers MarCO a spectacular success.

When NASA's InSight lander was on its seven-month trip to Mars, it wasn't alone.

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 USA space agency has said. At the time, the MarCO team collected data from each satellite to determine how much fuel they had left and took a deeper look at how they performed.

"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.

The US space agency launched Cubesats MarCO-A and B - nicknamed WALL-E and EVE - in May.

All of this was achieved with experimental technology that cost a fraction of what most space missions do: $18.5 million provided by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which built the CubeSats.

According to NASA, the goal of the MarCO mission is to demonstrate the CubeSats' capabilities for interplanetary exploration.

The mission team at JPL has several theories for why the spacecraft have been silent. Based on trajectory calculations, WALL-E is now more than 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) past Mars; EVE is farther, nearly 2 million miles (3.2 million kilometers) past Mars.

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Attitude-control issues could be causing them to wobble and lose the ability to send and receive commands, NASA said in a statement.

The pair of spacecraft were named EVE and Wall-E after characters from the popular Pixar film.

"WALL-E sent some great postcards from Mars!" said Cody Colley of JPL, MarCO's mission manager. If the brightness sensors that keep them pointing at the Sun have malfunctioned, the batteries may be unable to recharge. It's unknown if the batteries or any other components will last that long, however.

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

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. 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. 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.

This paves the way for new CubeSats that NASA will launch.

"There's big potential in these small packages", said John Baker, the MarCO program manager at JPL. The satellites have not communicated with the government space agency for more than a month, NASA said on Tuesday.

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