Thursday , June 17 2021

The first CubeSats ever to visit Mars are silent

When NASA's InSight mission reached March last year, it was not alone. It was accompanied by two small satellites called CubeSats, or in this case MarCO, for the Mars Cube One. They were the first CubeSats ever to visit the Red Planet. The couple, the nickname EVE and WALL-E, after Pixar's fictional robots, relayed information from InSight's descent. But their real mission was simply to show their abilities so far from home and prove that such small missions – the total MarCO program only cost $ 18.5 million – could succeed in the deep space.

The satellites did their job. But now, more than two months after InSight landed, CubeSats is silent as they continue to drive past Mars, and NASA does not expect to hear from them again.

Tiny Satellites do great work

CubeSat missions have proven to be popular in Earth's orbit, as their low cost and low launch weight means that many universities can afford to do their own circuit science. But it is rare for them to go adventuring so far from home. WALL-E and EVE's success is proof that small satellites face the challenge. And they show that it is possible to send follow-along, highly-focused scientific missions to Mars. Most CubeSats are approx. 4 inches (10 centimeters) square, but the MarCO satellites are actually six units packed into one, each leaving the size of a briefcase.

The MarCO satellites transported cameras, communication equipment and solar panels to stay charged. They launched with InSight on the same rocket, but separated them and made their own way to Mars. They kept pace and arrived at the destination to send back pictures and information about InSight's landing. NASA backed up in full-size satellites to track InSight if MarCO were to go astray, but the help was not needed as the small satellites admired their jobs.

But now NASA has not heard from the MarCO satellites for more than a month. WALL-E Last Pounded Home December 29 while EVE Last Checked in January 4. NASA is doubtful that they will check in again, but their success is seen as a good sign of CubeSat's future on NASA missions.

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