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NASA

Faulty software may have destroyed Mars orbiter, says NASA

Thursday, January 18, 2007 by: Ben Kage
Tags: NASA, mars orbiter, health news

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(NewsTarget) NASA's Mars Global Surveyor orbiting craft stopped responding to commands in November, the administration announced Wednesday, one day after officials told scientists that the craft may have been in for disaster since faulty software was uploaded to it during the summer.

NASA has said it is creating an internal investigative board to look into whether improperly coded software commanded the surveyor to aim its heat-shedding radiator directly at the sun and overheat the battery, according to quotes from John McNamee, NASA deputy program manager for Mars exploration at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on the NASA Watch web site.

"We think that the failure was due to a software load we sent up in June of last year," McNamee was quoted as saying at the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group meeting Tuesday. "This software tried to synch up two flight processors. Two addresses were incorrect -- two memory addresses were overwritten. As the geometry evolved, we drove the (solar) arrays against a hard stop and the spacecraft went into safe mode. The radiator for the battery pointed at the sun, the temperature went up, and battery failed. But this should be treated as preliminary."

Mike Adams, a NASA critic and technologist, was convinced that the faulty software was the direct cause of the problem.

"NASA has a long and hilarious history of sending billions of dollars of hardware into space to be destroyed or disabled by bad software," Adams said. "Poorly tested software nearly doomed the Mars rovers from the outset, and NASA crashed a satellite onto the Mars surface in the late 1990s due to a software calculation error. This latest incident, the loss of the Mars orbiter, only underscores the software quality control problems at this bloated agency that burns up billions of taxpayer dollars every time it loads bad code into expensive hardware.

"I have advice for NASA: Start testing your software before uploading it to satellites," he said.

According to NASA Mars Exploration Program Director Doug McCuistion, the investigative board is analyzing several other causes aside from the software error, including the fact that the orbiter is 10 years old. A report from the board is expected in a couple of months, McCuistion said, but he noted that the real problem might never be identified.

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