In addition to Mars, the MarCO spacecraft is silent


MarCO-B, one of the experimental CubeSats of the Mars Cube One (MarCO), captured these images as it approached Mars. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Before the pair of suit-sized spaceships collectively known as MarCO launched last year, their success was measured by survival: if they were capable of operating in deep space, they would be pushing the limits of experimental technology.

Now well after Mars, the daring twins seem to have reached their limit. It's been over a month since engineers heard about MarCO, which followed NASA's InSight for the Red Planet. At this time, the mission team finds it unlikely that they will be heard again.

MarCO, short for Mars Cube One, was the first interplanetary mission to use a mini-spacecraft class called CubeSats. The MarCOs – dubbed EVE and WALL-E, after characters from a Pixar film – served as communication relays during InSight landing, transmitting data at each stage of its descent to the near-real-time Martian surface, along with first image of InSight. WALL-E sent back stunning images of Mars, while EVE performed a simple radio science.

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

WALL-E was last heard on December 29; EVE, on January 4. Based on path calculations, WALL-E is currently more than 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Mars; EVE is further away, almost 2 million miles (3.2 million kilometers) beyond Mars.

The mission team has several theories as to why they could not get in touch with the pair. WALL-E has a leaky propellant. Attitude control problems can cause them to oscillate and lose the ability to send and receive commands. Brightness sensors that allow the CubeSats to be aimed at the Sun and recharge their batteries may be another factor. The Marches are in orbit around the Sun and will only move away when the month of February passes. The further they are, the more precisely they will need to point their antennae to communicate with the Earth.

Engineer Joel Steinkraus uses sunlight to test the solar arrays on one of the Mars Cube One spacecraft (MarCO) at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The Marks will not begin to move toward the Sun again until this summer. The team will attempt to contact CubeSats at this time, although no one knows if their batteries and other parts will last for so long.

Even though they are never revived, the team considers Marco a spectacular success.

"This mission has always been about pushing the limits of miniaturized technology and seeing how far it could take us," said Andy Klesh, JPL's chief mission engineer. "We put a stake on the floor. Future CubeSats can go even further."

Several critical spare parts for each MarCO will be used on other CubeSat missions. This includes their experimental radios, antennas, and propulsion systems. Several of these systems were provided by commercial vendors, making it easier for other CubeSats to use them as well.

More small spaceships are on the way. NASA is poised to launch a variety of new CubeSats for years to come.

"There is a lot of potential in these small packages," said John Baker, program manager for MarCO at JPL. "CubeSats – part of a larger group of spacecraft called SmallSats – is a new platform for space exploration that is accessible to more than just government agencies."

Explore more:
NASA's first image of Mars from a CubeSat

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Provided by:
Jet Propulsion Laboratory


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