Tiny satellites fall silent after proving new tech at Mars

James Marshall
February 7, 2019

But now a pair of NASA probes sent to study Mars in further detail have dramatically disappeared without a trace.

NASA engineers are now resigned losing the probes forever.

The illustration above shows the twin Mars Cube One (MarCO) spacecraft flying over Mars with Earth and the sun in the distance. The relatively low-priced satellites were the first time that CubeSats had entered the space between planets.

The success of the MarCO mini satellites - named WALL-E and EVE in honor of the futuristic Pixar flick (which isn't as good as A Bug's Life) - was a long shot for NASA from the start.

InSight would use the reliable Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been at Mars since 2006, to relay data back home, whether or not the CubeSats made it - but WALL-E successfully sent back InSight data from each stage of the descent, as well as the lander's first image, while EVE was able to perform some radio measurements.

"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. "We've put a stake in the ground". The mission could foretell a future of spacecraft bringing more CubeSats with them in the future.

The two CubeSats, which are the first class of this spacecraft to enter deep space, were orbiting Mars as Insight landed. Trajectory data suggests that Wall-E is more than 1 million miles past Mars with EVE being almost 2 million miles past Mars. 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.

WALL-E, which had been leaking fuel since liftoff last May, last radioed back on December 29.

Following Insight's successful touchdown, Wall-E and Eve continued travelling beyond Mars to test their parameters.

The mission team isn't sure why the probes have disappeared but has several theories. 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".

Klesh said then that the project was discussing with NASA potential extended missions involving the MarCO cubesats as they flew away from the planet into interplanetary space, such as collecting engineering data on the performance of the cubesats and "seeing what other great science and lessons we can pull from those craft".

However, industry insiders are reportedly uncertain their parts will survive that long.

"This mission was always about pushing the limits of miniaturized technology and seeing just how far it could take us", Andy Klesh of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement. "CubeSats - part of a larger group of spacecraft called SmallSats - are a new platform for space exploration that is affordable to more than just government agencies".

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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