NASA’s first mini-spacecraft in deep space goes silent

The success of MarCO provided proof that cubesat-class spacecraft could perform useful missions in deep space. But if they don't, NASA said the MarCO mission has been a "spectacular success" and will provide a blueprint for other cubesats in the future.

The two Mars Cube One satellites, the small CubeSats that took off towards the Red Planet in May 2018, went "dark" with no apparent reason, puzzling NASA which doesn't know why that happened.

After more than a month of radio silence, NASA says the mission team team 'considers it unlikely they'll be heard from again'. 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. Based on trajectory calculations, WALL-E is now more than 1.6 million kilometers past Mars; EVE is farther, nearly 3.2 million kilometres past Mars. EVE went mum on January 4; it's almost 2 million miles (3.2 million kilometres) past the red planet. Mission scientists will then attempt to regain contact with them, but even if that fails, the MarCO mission is viewed as a success and a milestone in the use of this new, still-experimental technology.

"This mission was always about pushing the limits of miniaturised technology and seeing just how far it could take us", said Andy Klesh, the mission's chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which built the CubeSats.

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

As InSight descended to the surface, the two briefcase-size satellites flew past the red planet, providing real-time updates to ground controllers in a first-of-its-kind experiment. WALL-E has a "leaky thruster", which could be affected by attitude-control issues and cause it to "wobble and lose the ability to send and receive commands".

In any event, the mini satellites will remain in an elongated orbit around the sun.

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.

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

NASA, meanwhile, is still trying to contact the Mars lander Opportunity, silenced last June by a global dust storm that prevented sunlight from reaching its solar panels.

Studying seismic waves tells us what might be creating the waves. The high-carbon dioxide content of Mars's atmosphere is slow to conduct heat under the planet's low pressure environment, further protecting InSight's mission from local damaging effects. That includes their experimental radios, antennas and propulsion systems.

Vanessa Coleman