NASA Finds Mars Orbiter Killed By Dead Batteries, Human Error - InformationWeek

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4/16/2007
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NASA Finds Mars Orbiter Killed By Dead Batteries, Human Error

More thorough operating procedures and processes and periodic reviews could have reduced the chance of errors, the space agency said.

NASA is blaming the failure and disappearance of its Mars orbiter in 2006 on both human error and dead batteries.

NASA released its finding in a report Friday that reviewed the lifecycle of the Mars Global Surveyor. The spacecraft orbited the Mars for about 10 years before its last communication with NASA in November 2006. The Surveyor extended its original two-year mission four times before a series of events led to its loss.

While in operation, the Mars Global Surveyor photographed Mars' topography, including canyons, ice caps and evidence of erosion that suggest the planet contains water. The spacecraft found evidence of magnetic fields and climate changes. It also found mineral deposits that ultimately led to the selection of a landing site for the Mars Exploration Rover.

NASA transmitted commands to the Mars Global Surveyor through the Deep Space Network for a Nov. 2, 2006 contact, in an attempt to move its solar arrays away from the sun line and maintain proper temperatures, according to the report.

Alarms indicated that one array drive was stuck and rotating freely on redundant hardware "but gave no indication the mission was in immediate danger," the report explained.

Lockheed Martin operators in Denver contacted engineers for troubleshooting, but the network did not detect signals after that. NASA abandoned efforts to find the spacecraft in January.

A Lockheed Martin spacecraft engineer determined that someone uploading commands to update positioning in the High Gain Antenna's positioning for contingency operations wrote the information to the wrong memory address in the Mars Global Surveyor's onboard computer.

"This resulted in the corruption of two independent parameters and had dire consequences for the spacecraft," the report released by NASA explained.

The corrupted upload happened, according to the report, because two previous updates conflicted and programmers were trying to fix the discrepancy.

NASA said the error caused problems with a solar array, which caused the craft to go into contingency mode, exposing batteries to direct sunlight and overheating. That ultimately depleted the batteries, most likely within 12 hours, according to the report. A second parameter error caused the antenna to rotate away from Earth, which blocked communications.

NASA said that more thorough operating procedures and processes and periodic reviews could have reduced the chance of errors.

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