NASA’s “WALL-E” satellite has mysteriously gone silent after zooming past Mars and the government space agency isn’t sure why.
The small satellite (known as a cube satellite or cubesat) is one of the first two to leave Earth’s orbit. The satellites have not communicated with the government space agency for more than a month, NASA said on Tuesday. The two MarCO spacecraft (MarCO-A and MarCO-B) were launched from Earth in May 2018 and it’s possible that the spacecraft may have simply reached their limits.
“This mission was always about pushing the limits of miniaturized technology and seeing just how far it could take us,” said Andy Klesh, the mission’s chief engineer at JPL, said in a statement. “We’ve put a stake in the ground. Future CubeSats might go even farther.”
The launch of the two MarCO (short for Mars Cube One) spacecraft was a demonstration project and done in conjunction with the InSight lander to show the prowess of these small satellites. They were nicknamed WALL-E and EVE after the Pixar characters of the same name and were last heard from on Dec. 29 and Jan. 4, respectively.
The InSight lander landed successfully on the surface of the Red Planet on Nov. 26, ending a journey that lasted six months and more than 300 million miles.
NASA said that based on trajectory calculations, WALL-E is more than 1 million miles past Mars, while EVE is almost 2 million miles past the Red Planet.
Several theories are floating about (pun intended) as to why NASA has not been able to contact the two cubesats. WALL-E has a “leaky thruster,” which could be affected by attitude-control issues and cause it to “wobble and lose the ability to send and receive commands.”
“The brightness sensors that allow the CubeSats to stay pointed at the Sun and recharge their batteries could be another factor,” NASA JPL added in the statement. “The MarCOs are in orbit around the Sun and will only get farther away as February wears on. The farther they are, the more precisely they need to point their antennas to communicate with Earth.”
Both spacecraft won’t start moving toward the Sun again until the summer, at which time, NASA JPL will attempt to contact them again, assuming the batteries and other parts last until then. But if they don’t, NASA said the MarCO mission has been a “spectacular success” and will provide a blueprint for other cubesats in the future.
“There’s big potential in these small packages,” said John Baker, the MarCO program manager at JPL, in the statement. “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.”