Tuesday, 20 August, 2019

NASA’s first deep space mini spacecraft go silent

MarCo spacecraft unlikely to be heard from again says NASA Pixaaaarrrrrrghh! Mars-snapping CubeSats Wall-E and Eve declared dead (for now) by NASA bods
Sandy Nunez | 09 February, 2019, 00:11

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

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 U.S. space agency's scientists.

The two followed NASA's previous Mars aircraft, InSight which touched down on the red planet around the New Year. But it's rare for them to go adventuring so far from home.

Wall-E had a leaky thruster, and attitude control issues could be causing it to wobble and lose the ability to send and receive commands. As InSight landed on Mars, the MarCO cubesats flew by the planet, serving as communications relays to allow controllers to get real-time telemetry from InSight as it landed.

The twin MarCO CubeSats, nicknamed Wall-E and Eve, fell silent hundreds of millions of miles away from Earth, and the space agency says it's been more than a month since it last heard from them - and doubts it ever will again.

NASA said that based on trajectory calculations, WALL-E is more than 1 million miles past Mars, while EVE is nearly 2 million miles past the Red Planet.

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.

After more than a month of radio silence, NASA says the mission team team 'considers it unlikely they'll be heard from again'.

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"WALL-E was last heard from on December 29, EVE, on January 4".

They played a vital role during the recent landing of the InSight exploration craft on Mars, beaming back images of its descent in real time and also relaying data from the spaceship including its first picture from the Martian surface.

Nasa has several theories about why it has lost contact with the pair - none of which involve the interference of aliens. "The farther they are, the more precisely they need to point their antennas to communicate with Earth", NASA JPL said in a statement.

JPL hasn't ruled out restoring contact with the MarCO cubesats, which are still receding from the sun in their heliocentric orbits but will start to move closer again this summer.

However, Nasa admitted it's "anyone's guess whether their batteries and other parts will last that long".

Even if they are never revived, the team considers MarCO a spectacular success. NASA plans to repurpose some of the spare parts used in their construction, such as antennas, experimental radios, and propulsion systems, to build additional CubeSats scheduled to launch in the near future.

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