MarCo spacecraft unlikely to be heard from again says NASA

James Marshall
February 8, 2019

NASA launched a pair of spacecraft that were very small, about the size of a briefcase, known collectively as MarCO a year ago. MarCO launched to Mars behind the InSight mission and were meant to act as relays for data during each stage of the InSight landing process in near-real time, that mission was a success.

Having travelled well past Mars, the twin CubeSats seem to have reached their limit, Nasa said in a statement.

The pair played a key role in the InSight lander's arrival to Mars in November; as InSight descended to the surface, the briefcase-size satellites flew past the red planet, providing real-time updates to ground controllers in a first-of-its-kind experiment. One, nicknamed WALL-E, last contacted Earth Dec. 29, while the other, Eve, has been silent since January 4. 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.

NASA used to the CubeSats to see if they are a viable and thrifty way to track of spacecraft during the landing process, arguably the most vital part of any mission. 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".

Problems with the brightness sensors that allow the cubesats to stay pointed at the Sun and recharge their batteries could be another factor for the radio silence. They are orbiting the sun and by that time, the two will come much closer to Earth.

Both of the machines will begin heading back towards the Sun in a few months, at which point NASA will once again attempt to wake them up, but whether they'll be up for a chat is anyone's guess. 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.

"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 JPL.

But the missions demonstrated that CubeSats are a viable option for relaying data from deep space back to Earth, and future missions may bring their own communications relay to monitor touchdown.

The MarCO spacecraft were 6U cubesats launched in May 2018 as secondary payloads on the Atlas 5 that sent the InSight mission to Mars.

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. NASA has, in recent years, shown a growing interest in using cubesats for a wide range of science missions, initially in Earth orbit but also potentially elsewhere in the solar system.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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