Tiny satellites fall silent after proving new tech at Mars

MarCO-B one of the experimental Mars Cube One CubeSats took these images as it approached Mars

MarCO-B one of the experimental Mars Cube One CubeSats took these images as it approached Mars

The mission's chief engineer, Andy Flesh said: "This mission was always about pushing the limits of miniaturised technology and seeing just how far it could take us".

While the two Mars Cube One satellites have launched towards Mars as a test project for advanced communication systems in deep space, the fact that they went "dark" is puzzling the USA space agency's scientists.

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.

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. They're created to fly along behind NASA's InSight lander on its cruise to Mars.

NASA said that based on trajectory calculations, WALL-E is more than 1 million miles past Mars, while EVE is nearly 2 million miles past the Red Planet.

Before the pair of briefcase-sized spacecraft known collectively as MarCO launched previous year, their success was measured by survival: If they were able to operate in deep space at all, they would be pushing the limits of experimental technology.

The mission team fears that the pair of spacecraft has attitude-control issues that are preventing them from communicating with Earth.

Now estimated to be millions of miles past Mars, WALL-E was last heard from on December 29; EVE, on January 4. The MarCO sats are in orbit around the Sun and will only get farther away as February wears on.

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. The team will reattempt to contact the CubeSats at that time, though it's anyone's guess whether their batteries and other parts will last that long.

While losing the MarCO spacecraft too early would be unfortunate, NASA said that they consider the mission a success.

The MarCO spacecraft were 6U cubesats launched in May 2018 as secondary payloads on the Atlas 5 that sent the InSight mission to Mars. That includes their experimental radios, antennas and propulsion systems.

With EVE and WALL-E's success, NASA is set to continue launching a variety of new CubeSats in the coming years. "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".

NASA now hope to use the technology for further projects with John Baker, MarCO programme manager concluding that there is "big potential" in the small packages.