Published: Sat, February 09, 2019
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MarCo spacecraft unlikely to be heard from again says NASA

MarCo spacecraft unlikely to be heard from again says NASA

Before the pair of briefcase-sized spacecraft known collectively as MarCO launched a year ago, their success was measured by survival: If they were able to operate in deep space at all, they would be pushing the limits of experimental technology.

The illustration above shows the twin Mars Cube One (MarCO) spacecraft flying over Mars with Earth and the sun in the distance.

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. They performed better than anyone could have expected, but we may never hear from them again.

The craft are known as Mars Cube One (MarCO).

The MarCOs - nicknamed EVE and WALL-E, after characters from a Pixar film - served as communications relays during InSight's landing, beaming back data at each stage of its descent to the Martian surface in near-real time, along with InSight's first image.

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.

Placed into an elliptical solar orbit, both CubeSats, whose $18.5-million cost was funded by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, are now well past Mars. WALL-E is now over 1.6 million kilometres away from Mars and EVE has ventured even further - 3.2 million kilometres from the Red Planet. It's now more than 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometres) beyond Mars. WALL-E and EVE's success are proof that small satellites are up to the challenge.

The pair may also be afflicted with dodgy attitude-control systems, which doesn't mean they've thrown a huff but suggests their trajectory is "wobbling" so ground control can't contact them properly.

Another possibility is that their brightness sensors malfunctioned, meaning they won't be able to determine where the sun is. "The farther they are, the more precisely they need to point their antennas to communicate with Earth", NASA JPL said in a statement.

NASA will attempt to contact them again this summer.

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

While losing the MarCO spacecraft too early would be unfortunate, NASA said that they consider the mission a success.

The mission's chief engineer, Andy Flesh said: "This mission was always about pushing the limits of miniaturised technology and seeing just how far it could take us".

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

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