NASA's first deep space mini spacecraft go silent

NASA's first deep space mini spacecraft go silent

NASA's first deep space mini spacecraft go silent

NASA's Mars InSight mission is moving along nicely, with the robotic lander preparing for many months of research that will tell scientists more about the interior of the planet than ever.

Launched past year, the pair of briefcase-sized spacecraft known collectively as MarCO (Mars Cube One) - nicknamed EVE and WALL-E, after characters from a Pixar film - served as communications relays during InSight's landing, beaming back data at each stage of its descent to the Martian surface in near-real time. In the following days and weeks, 'selfies' along with other goodies were sent, such as the sound of Martian wind, as the craft meticulously placed its seismometer on the ground and continued its preparation for its full science mission of studying the heart of Mars as well as its atmosphere and weather patterns.

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

WALL-E was last heard from on December 29 and EVE, on January 4.

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

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According to NASA, the goal of the MarCO mission is to demonstrate the CubeSats' capabilities for interplanetary exploration.

One important benefit of CubeSats is that each one carries its own navigation and communication systems.

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.

A pair of small satellites that joined the InSight mission on its way to Mars haven't been heard from in over a month-but the experimental mission is still an important success for NASA.

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

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NASA, the European Space Agency and China all aim to launch Mars rovers in mid-2020. Or maybe they both can't point their solar panels toward the Sun to power up, and have run out of juice.

Another possibility is that their brightness sensors malfunctioned, meaning they won't be able to determine where the sun is. The satellites are still receding from the Sun, and their greater distance requires more precision in aiming their antennas toward Earth.

"WALL-E has a leaky thruster". Several of these systems were provided by commercial vendors, making it easier for other CubeSats to use them as well. "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.

Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science.

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