NASA satellite mysteriously goes silent after flying past Mars

NASA satellite MarCO-B took this image of Mars during its flyby of the Red Planet on Nov. 26 2018

Modal Trigger NASA satellite MarCO-B took this image of Mars during its flyby of the Red Planet on Nov. 26 2018. NASA JPL-Caltech

Before the pair of briefcase-sized spacecraft known collectively as MarCO launched past 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.

NASA's first interplanetary mission to use a class of mini-spacecraft has fallen silent in deep space and it is unlikely that they will be heard again, the U.S. space agency has said.

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.

When NASA's InSight mission reached Mars previous year, it wasn't alone.

Even if they're never revived, the team considers MarCO a spectacular success. Nicknamed "EVE" and "WALL-E" it is thought the spacecraft are now millions of miles beyond Mars. 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.

The last message received from either robot was on January 4 and NASA believe that the two are a million to two million miles from Mars.

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The experimental technology cost a fraction of what most space missions do - $18.5 million.

Chief engineer Andy Klesh noted the mission was about reaching new heights, and hailed it a success despite the loss of contact.

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

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

As InSight descended to the surface, the two briefcase-size satellites flew past the red planet, providing real-time updates to ground controllers in a first-of-its-kind experiment.

Attitude-control issues could be causing them to wobble and lose the ability to send and receive commands, NASA said in a statement.

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In any event, the mini satellites will remain in an elongated orbit around the sun.

NASA said that the pair will not begin moving toward the sun until this summer.

They were named after the main characters in the 2008 animated movie. They launched with InSight on the same rocket, but then separated and made their own way to Mars. The high-carbon dioxide content of Mars's atmosphere is slow to conduct heat under the planet's low pressure environment, further protecting InSight's mission from local damaging effects.

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.

To study this, two radio antennas, part of the RISE instrument, track the location of the lander very precisely.

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