Mars Cube One Satellites Went "Dark" And NASA Doesn’t Know Why

Gwen Vasquez
February 9, 2019

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. "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.

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 week, NASA said it hasn't heard from them for more than a month now - and doubts it ever will. One, nicknamed WALL-E, last contacted Earth Dec. 29, while the other, Eve, has been silent since January 4.

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

The mission team has several theories for why they haven't been able to contact the pair. 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.

Wall-E may have a faulty thruster, causing it to wobble as it can't control its position correctly, hampering its ability to send and receive coherent commands.

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The two Marc Cube One satellites will move again toward the Sun during the summer.

In its statement, JPL said that there were several possible explanations for why the two spacecraft were no longer in contact with the Earth, including problems with sensors used to keep the spacecraft pointed at the sun or problems with their attitude control systems. CubeSats are scalable, however-WALL-E and EVE each contained 6 cube units.

"We've put a stake in the ground", he said. It's unknown if the batteries or any other components will last that long, however.

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. 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. "They'll never replace the more capable spacecraft NASA is best known for developing". NASA is set to launch a variety of new CubeSats in coming years.

NASA now hope to use the technology for further projects with John Baker, MarCO programme manager concluding that there is "big potential" in the small packages. The satellites have not communicated with the government space agency for more than a month, NASA said on Tuesday.

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