FREMONT, California. – The twin cubes that played a key role in NASA's latest Mars Lander mission have been out of touch with Earth for more than a month, suggesting their trailblazing mission has been reached.
On February 5, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory declared that it had not belonged to one of the Mars Cube One or MarCO cubesats since the beginning of the year. One, the nickname WALL-E, last contacted the earth on December 29, while the other, Eva, has been silent since January 4.
The MarCO spacecraft was 6U cubesats launched in May 2018 as a secondary payload on Atlas 5, which sent the InSight mission to Mars. As InSight landed on Mars, the MarCO cube flew on the planet, which served as a communication relay to allow controllers to get real-time telemetry from InSight when it landed.
The spacecraft performed the first mission as desired and received UHF signals from InSight as it landed and rebroadcated it back to earth at X-band frequencies. "MarCO was there to forward information back from InSight in real time, and we did so well," said Andy Klesh, chief executive of MarCO, at a press conference at JPL immediately after the successful InSight landing on November 26.
Klesh then said that the project was discussing with NASA's potential extended missions involving the MarCO cubesat as they flew away from the planet to interplanetary space, such as collecting technical data on cubesat performance and "seeing other great sciences and lessons. we can draw from these crafts. "
JPL spokesman Andrew Good said on February 5, that after the flyby Marco cubesats continued to transmit technical data on the performance of their various subsystems, including position control, propulsion and communication. "The team is looking at a number of tests related to performance, including watching just how long cubesat could survive, which was always a key goal of the mission," he said.
JPL said in its statement that there were several possible explanations as to why the two spacecraft were no longer in contact with Earth, including problems with sensors used to keep the spacecraft pointing to the sun or problems with their attitude control systems. One of the cubesats, WALL-E, had a nice propeller.
JPL has not ruled out restoring contact with MarCO cubes that still fall off the sun in their heliocentric pathways, but will begin moving closer again this summer. JPL said the project at that time was trying to reconnect with the cubesats, but acknowledged that "it is anyone's guess" if the spacecraft is still to be functional then.
The success of MarCO showed that cubic-class spacecraft could perform useful missions in deep space. NASA has in recent years shown an increasing interest in using cubesats for a wide range of scientific missions, first in the Earth's orbit, but also potentially elsewhere in the solar system.
"We've put an effort into the ground," Klesh said in the JPL statement. "Future cubesats can go even further."