NASA's first mini-spacecraft in deep space goes silent

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"This mission was always about pushing the limits of miniaturized technology and seeing just how far it could take us", said in a statement Andy Klesh, the mission's chief engineer at JPL.

It was accompanied by two tiny satellites called CubeSats, or in this case, MarCO, for Mars Cube One.

Before NASA's InSight lander gathers data on Martian surface vibrations, aka "marsquakes", it needs to protect its seismographic instrument from the winds and temperature changes during its stay on the red planet. "Future CubeSats might go even farther", Klesh added. WALL-E and EVE's success are proof that small satellites are up to the challenge.

The briefcase-sized craft rode on the Insight Mars Lander, detaching shortly after leaving orbit. NASA estimated that Wall-E is more than a million miles (1.6 million kilometres) past Mars, and Eve is further away at nearly two million miles (3.2 kilometres).

The MarCO CubeSats were launched previous year to test if such low-priced technology can operate in deep space. They performed better than anyone could have expected, but we may never hear from them again.

The last communication from Wall-E was received on December 29 with EVE's last communication received on January 4.

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The pair, nicknamed EVE and WALL-E, after Pixar's fictional robots, relayed information from InSight's descent. Another possible issue would be some sort of failure with the brightness sensors that allow the spacecraft to point towards the sun to recharge. They are in orbit around the sun and the farther they are, the more hard it would be to contact them. NASA plans to repurpose some of the spare parts used in their construction, such as antennas, experimental radios, and propulsion systems, to build additional CubeSats scheduled to launch in the near future.

The mission team has several theories for why they haven't been able to contact the pair. The satellites are still receding from the Sun, and their greater distance requires more precision in aiming their antennas toward Earth.

The InSight team will attempt to communicate with the MarCO satellites in the summer when they get closer to the Sun, according to a press release.

However, Nasa admitted it's "anyone's guess whether their batteries and other parts will last that long". NASA has, in recent years, shown a growing interest in using cubesats for a wide range of science missions, initially in Earth orbit but also potentially elsewhere in the solar system.

Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Sciences Division, described the MarCo mission as "a demonstration of future potential capability" while MarCO program manager John Baker of JPL praised them as a technology affordable to private companies as well as to governments.

More small spacecraft are on the way.

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