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Space Science

Cassini Geyser-Tasting a Bust 95

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the techno-ageusia dept.
Maggie McKee writes "The Cassini spacecraft flew into the icy geysers erupting from Saturn's moon Enceladus on Wednesday in an attempt to figure out what they were made of, but a glitch prevented the probe from actually 'tasting' the plumes. An 'unexplained software hiccup' put the Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA) out of commission. Ironically, new software designed to improve the ability of the CDA to count particle hits may be to blame. Mission managers may try to re-attempt the plume fly-through later this year."
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Cassini Geyser-Tasting a Bust

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  • by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Friday March 14, 2008 @12:57PM (#22753034) Homepage
    There were alien bacteria in the ice samples, and NASA is covering it up by claiming that the probe didn't work.
    • by CRCulver (715279)
      (I guess I should add </conspiracy-nuttery> so that people don't think I was serious.)
    • by trongey (21550)
      My top-level sources say the "geysers" are actually EMP shields fired from cannons erected by the Titanian colonists on Enceladus.
      • My top-level sources say the "geysers" are actually EMP shields fired from cannons

        Not quite. These "geysers" are, in reality, crap being thrown out the back end of some large bug on Enceladus. These bugs have left the quarantine zone and are doing test firings under the different conditions of the moon relative to Saturn. Once they adjust for drift (heavy gravitational forces), they'll point their butts our way and we'll suddenly have to contend with "mystery" meteors coming our way.

    • by confused one (671304) on Friday March 14, 2008 @01:18PM (#22753266)
      Or they got warned off...

      Cassini: [message relayed from monolith] "All these worlds are yours except Enceladus. Attempt no landings there...."
      • You know, I like a nice over-used meme being given endless new twists as much as anyone. But please... enough with the "Attempt no landings", 'kay? Thank you.
        • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward
          So all these memes are ours except... oh, sorry. Forgot already.
        • You have to admit, this time it was appropriate.
      • by ethanms (319039)
        Cassini: [message relayed from monolith] "All these worlds are yours except Enceladus. Attempt no landings there...."

        Curiosity and temptation supposedly ruined Eden when Adam and Eve decided to bite the apple...

        So I have to wonder how long it took before some humans went over there to figure out what was so great... or some future-lawyers decided that orbiting w/ high powered telescopes and scanners was OK because they weren't landing... or maybe if they built ships that could hover a few feet from the grou
        • by opti6600 (582782)
          This was actually addressed in a later book by Clarke - I think it might have been 2061 (there were four books).

          Basically, a bunch of Chinese astronauts got chased around by some giant vine-critter that came out of the ice. Read the book, the rest of the series is actually interesting.
          • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

            by Curze (1166985)
            That's crazy! Giant vine-critter is just going to be hungry again in an hour.
      • by Chris Burke (6130)
        "All these worlds are yours except Europa. Attempt no landings there. And Enceladus, don't land there either. Or on Titan. And don't even think about Io. Phoebe is right out. In fact why don't you monkey bastards just stay on your own little rock and its moon. Damn kids mucking up the solar system..."
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by savorymedia (938523)
        Cassini: [message relayed from Cats] "All your base are belong to us. You have no chance to survive make your time."
  • It doesn't give me much confidence that we're heading towards applications and operating systems that won't crash anytime soon when we can't even get something this important right.

    It really makes me curious about the whole software quality assurance program at NASA these days. I'd like to know what their procedures are for code writing, debugging, and testing, that we're spending millions to conduct this research and apparently missing our opportunities due to software bugs.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Forrest Kyle (955623)
      NASA is probably not entirely to blame. They contract out so much stuff, that a lot of problems are created by interoperability issues between hardware and software designed by different companies.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by OTDR (1052896)
      Note to self: Turn off Windows Automatic Update...
    • by Lumpy (12016) on Friday March 14, 2008 @01:20PM (#22753296) Homepage
      Overheard in a NASA deep space probe software lab....

      "It compiles! ship it!"

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by cavePrisoner (1184997)
      Remember that NASA doesn't actually get very much funding given what is expected of them. If they had a military budget and they screwed up it would be a different story...
    • by iluvcapra (782887) on Friday March 14, 2008 @01:38PM (#22753476)

      This is just one data point in a rather big history. At least they didn't confuse feet-per-second with meters-per-second; at least they didn't cause their CPU to thrash due to a radar being left on and overloading the interrupts. Also, this is the same organization that managed to put two quite-autonomous rovers on Mars and keep them rolling for, what is it now?, 4 years. When one of the rovers did have a software failure, and a really bad mission-killing one, they were able to debug it and update firmware OTA from light-minutes distance, on a machine that was only intermittently alive.

      They screw things up, but they seem to do very well at fault-tolerance and recovery, and I think if I were in automated systems, I'd wanna be at NASA over anywhere else, period.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by LiquidCoooled (634315)
        100% agree.
        My sig explains the human factor quite well, what makes NASA engineers stand out above the rest is just how often they manage to carry on regardless.
        In situations where normal people would give up they find a solution.
    • by timeOday (582209)
      It's an ambitious mission.

      Some people have a mindset that the software should be as reliable as the electrical or mechanical systems. Is that based on anything but wishful thinking? Getting the software right is the hardest part, just look at the history of failed space missions in the last couple decades.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by MttJocy (873799) *

      To be honest I have to say it is disturbing how many millions have been wasted on projects to have been ruined by very simple glitches in software, sure this sort of analysis software is probably quite complex I don't know I didn't write it. But when millions of $CURRENCY is spent on a complex piece of hardware which has a single chance of success it's hardly like we get these probes back to reuse or anything that more care should be taken to ensure the software can do it's job otherwise it is a waste of m

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by CheshireCatCO (185193)
        So maybe the lesson here is "spaceflight is hard," and not "NASA sucks"? You're talking about writing software for custom-built hardware to do things that no Earth-based software has to do. And it's not like you can beta test stuff out like Mozilla does, either. If there's some obscure combination of hardware and software settings that will lead to a glitch, but everything is fine otherwise, it'll be damn hard to locate without spending many millions more for extremely extensive testing. There's a point
        • by darkonc (47285)
          You think that a spacecraft should be as reliable as your household plumbing and electrical? Think again. On the way to the plumbing and electrical standards that we have now, there were a lot of homes that burnt down due to errors in design, or flooded out because some issue was overlooked --- and I'm sure that there are a couple of houses that: the only reason why they didn't burn down because of electrical problems was that the fire was put out by a leak from a plumbing problem.

          Now, 100 years later, w

    • by LMacG (118321) on Friday March 14, 2008 @01:47PM (#22753556) Journal
      Seriously? Somebody modified a program so that a system designed to do one thing could do something else and sent the modifications millions of miles across space on a radio link. There's probably not much chance of a three tier development/test/production environment here.

      In the meantime, the overall Cassini project has already been incredibly successful; the happy little Mars rovers have gotten unstuck by virtue of some pretty good software hacks, but you, "Phat Tony", call into question NASA's procedures.

      Seriously?
      • Seriously? Somebody modified a program so that a system designed to do one thing could do something else and sent the modifications millions of miles across space on a radio link. There's probably not much chance of a three tier development/test/production environment here.

        Indeed. And as another poster has pointed out, it's hellishly complicated with significant limitations (I.E. power, bandwidth). Not to mention (as no one has so far) it's a one-off one-of-a-kind system. OK, there are emulators and sim

    • by necro81 (917438) on Friday March 14, 2008 @01:48PM (#22753574) Journal
      These craft - their software, hardware, and the interactions between them - are so complex that there is no way to exhaustively test everything. It's complex enough that you can't even determine what an exhaustive test criteria would be. If we wanted exhaustive testing to ensure that nothing wrong ever happens, we'd never get anything off the ground. Mistakes happen, the unforeseen happens, and when communications take hours to go through, it is just plain hard. You live with it, correct mistakes as they happen, and make the best of it. They'll get a chance to try again. They have already logged tremendous amounts of data that couldn't have been gotten any other way - it's not like the whole $1.5b mission is a bust. This probe, the largest and most complex NASA has ever launched, has been operating continuously, with very few problems and no critical failures, for over a decade now.

      NASA, in general, is a lot more stringent with its software than most organizations. If you would like to know more about it, you could start here [nasa.gov].

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by zullnero (833754)
      Taxpayers complain about having to foot the bill for millions of dollars of research in something where the actual value to those taxpayers isn't properly explained to them. Government legislators get elected by promising to cut "pork barrel spending" to programs like NASA. Budgets get slashed, partisan hacks/beancounters get put into management positions at NASA. Quality assurance budgets get cut. Software quality goes down.

      There you go. You can't have something that you don't want to pay for.
    • Re: (Score:1, Troll)

      by Plugh (27537)
      I love space exploration. That's why I want NASA and the ESA to close up shop.

      By using tax money taken from entire populations to fund their work, they totally distort the market for competitive, market-based space exploration.

      If multiple teams were competing against each other, I strongly suspect the quality of all subsystems -- including software -- would vastly improve.

      Equally important, when there is a foobar like this one, the money lost would only be that of people who had VOLUNTARILY DONATED IT, not
    • by clampolo (1159617)

      I think the problem is people don't realize what an extremely difficult problem programming is. Perhaps it helps to state it mathematically: Given a mathematical specification of a program (i.e. we might say "Given N is positive, set x to the square root of N") it is not possible to construct an algorithm to construct a program from that specification (for the general case.) Furthermore, it is not even possible to tell, in the general case, whether there is even a solution.

      So from a mathematical standpo

    • Eh? This one glitch sends you into a tailspin of not trusting software? You're a real "glass half-empty" kind of guy, aren't you?

      Personally, I'd rather look at mind-boggling accomplishments that NASA has done, like those two little rovers on the Martian surface? You know, the ones that were supposed to last some six months and are now going on four YEARS?

      Shit happens. The programming and design of anything in space is far beyond the abilities of most people, and I would bet yours as well. The cha
    • by Tablizer (95088) on Friday March 14, 2008 @10:15PM (#22757342) Journal
      It doesn't give me much confidence that we're heading towards applications and operating systems that won't crash anytime soon when we can't even get something this important right. It really makes me curious about the whole software quality assurance program at NASA.

      Hold your horses, Tex. It says in the article that they tuned the software to better pick up such particles. They may have had a big choice to keep it the way it was and play it safe, or get fancy to pick up much more data. You don't know what decisions they faced and are thus judging prematurely.

      Remember, the instruments weren't originally designed for such, so they may have had to "get creative". There's always risk in exploration.

      NASA has some of the best QA practices ever invented:

      http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/06/writestuff.html [fastcompany.com]

      However, it takes time and money. I doubt the Geyser team had much time, for this pass-by is relatively recent in the probe plans.
       
    • It's really not a surprise. Remember the Mars probe? The whole meters/feet gig? I somewhat expect failure on the part of NASA in the first go-round. Hell, when they launched the first shuttle after Columbia, I was shaking my head wondering about the poor souls who accepted the mission--although, I guess that wasn't really a true first-run, just the first after trying to bring in a damaged craft...
  • Hmm (Score:1, Redundant)

    by dreamchaser (49529)
    Ironically, new software designed to improve the ability of the CDA to count particle hits may be to blame.

    Wouldn't it have been better to get a less accurate count than no count at all? I wonder if they did sufficient regression testing or if they rushed the patch out the door. It almost sounds like they were getting greedy.

    No, of course I haven't RTFA yet! I'm eating lunch and trying to work! I'll get to it.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      There wasn't anything mentioned about the software beyond what the summary said, so we are left to speculate. Unless someone who works on the software is around here, you're not gonna find an answer other than maybe the stock "NASA sucks these days" that has become so prevalent since the shuttle's problems.

      I'm just hoping everything goes right the next time around. It's going to be much closer and we "should" get the data we've been searching for.
  • Wasn't there a "problem" with the software for the recently added Dextre also? Where it just wouldn't turn on?

    By the time multi-million dollar pieces of equipment get into space, I expect software issues should be already forseen and taken care of. Yeah I know, tight schedules, pressure from above... Vibration, overheating, and other "environmental" causes should be the only real obstacles NASA should be facing once they're off the ground.
    • by EricB504 (1256040)
      They now are thinking it wasn't the software but a temporary power cord.

      from the article on cnn:

      "Canadian engineers initially suspected the trouble could be with a timer, and they created a software patch to fix it. But Pierre Jean, Canada's acting space station program manager, said experts now believe the problem stems from a design flaw in the temporary cable that is supposed to provide power to Dextre until it is fully assembled."

      I agree with you that they should have tested this thing more thoroughly.

      • by AJWM (19027)
        experts now believe the problem stems from a design flaw in the temporary cable

        I've got to wonder, how hard is it to design a power cable, even one meant to operate in space? I mean, fabrication flaw perhaps, although that should be caught in testing. But design flaw? We've had fifty years experience designing stuff to work in Earth orbit; what's up with that?
    • NASA didn't even write most of the flight software for Cassini until it was launched. (So I've been told, this was before my time on the project.) If you think about it, it makes sense: you don't even know if the spacecraft is going to make it into Earth orbit, let alone to the target. Why spend millions writing the stuff that you don't have to until you are pretty sure it'll make it.

      Now, what you're personally complaining about is an update. A patch, if you will. Are you saying that NASA should never
  • by Alsee (515537) on Friday March 14, 2008 @01:09PM (#22753152) Homepage
    Tastes like.....

    chicken.

    -
    • by AikonMGB (1013995)

      But how does the probe even know what chicken tastes like? Maybe it really doesn't, so anything it tastes that it doesn't recognize it decides tastes like chicken..

      Aikon-

      • "Now how did the machines know what Tasty Wheat tasted like, huh? Maybe they got it wrong. Maybe what I think Tasty Wheat tasted like actually tasted like, uh ... oatmeal or tuna fish. That makes you wonder about a lot of things. You take chicken for example. Maybe they couldn't tell what to make chicken taste like which is why chicken tastes like everything!" ---Mouse, The Matrix.
      • by Dun Malg (230075)

        But how does the probe even know what chicken tastes like?

        All taste gauging systems are calibrated on chicken.
    • by Hatta (162192)
      Yum, chicken enceladus.
    • by Tablizer (95088)
      Tastes like.....chicken.

      Enceladus does resemble a big cracked egg [wanderingspace.net] (Saturn in background).
             
  • Irony? (Score:2, Funny)

    by JshWright (931399)
    I'm not sure I see how a software upgrade causing a "software hiccup" is an example of irony. Maybe I'll try that on my boss sometime... "No, that's not a regression... That's an ironic hiccup"
  • Did the Cassini probe at least get a steak [steakandbjday.com]?

  •     This isn't the first time that software changes have caused problems. Software change freezes should be in place prior to certain mission segments to allow for this sort of problem to be sorted out prior to when it goes live. At least it did not result in vehicle loss.
    • by rbanffy (584143)
      the Cassini sensors and computers are not that much like the embedded computer in your car engine. Perhaps the situation that triggers the bug only happened during the flyby and never before during the trip. Exploring Saturn's icy moons is hardly routine operations.

      But, to some extent, I must agree. Events like this present an opportunity to improve testing and simulation. Perhaps when they get what went wrong, processes will be improved and things like this one do not happen again.

  • Hmmm (Score:2, Funny)

    by Beefslaya (832030)
    Ctl+Alt+Del

    Task Manager to kill the hung process.

    Sheesh... DUH.
  • by Icarus1919 (802533) on Friday March 14, 2008 @01:26PM (#22753376)
    You should always ask before you try tasting a bust - last time I got slapped in the face. And probing? Hoo boy.
  • In a related story, Slashdot Editors accidentally allowed the correct use of the word "ironic" to appear in a story which made it to the front page of the geek-oriented web site.
  • Sounds like a robot defending itself.
  • We did get some cool images, you know. Not as many as most flybys (blame Saturn blocking the Sun for two hours starting three minutes after closest approach), but still some very neat ones. http://ciclops.org/view.php?id=4865 [ciclops.org] This mosaic highlights the cratered terrain of Enceladus' north polar region. In addition, it should two areas on much younger terrain: Samarkand Sulci (which cuts through the crater terrain, disrupting craters along its margins) and youthful terrain on Enceladus' leading hemisphere
  • by CheshireCatCO (185193) on Friday March 14, 2008 @02:19PM (#22753858) Homepage
    OK, lookit. There are about a dozen instruments on Cassini. One (1) failed to return data on this pass. Yes, this pass was good for CDA, but it isn't the only instrument. It isn't even the only one that can sample the plume in situ. INMS, RPWS, MIMI, and CAPS all come to mind as candidates to give us useful information (INMS in particular can help clarify composition). All of these returned their data from what I've heard. (And no, that's all I can say until those teams want to speak up.)

    CDA's failure is unfortunate to be sure, but it isn't catastrophic. Could the entire news media please stop sensationalizing this?
    • The RPWS instrument can also provide us a good estimate of dust counts in the plume as it passes through by measuring the plasma generated from dust impacts on the spacecraft. Add that with the INMS measuring gas composition in the plume, and I think it is a bit of a stretch to say that Cassini "failed" to taste the plume emanating from Enceladus' south polar region. Cassini's flyby in October 2008 has a very similar profile to Wednesday's encounter. CDA will be able to repeat its measurements during tha
  • "Mission managers may try to re-attempt the plume fly-through later this year."

    This pass was just the first of several that were already planned for this year. The next is slated for August, and another for October. The August pass will focus on visual data, and the October pass on particle analyzers. There's additional official info [nasa.gov] from NASA as well.

  • Unexplained hiccup... The rest of the probe's parts are running a Linux kernel, but this probe is running Windows CE. Must have been the blue screen of space.
  • "Guys, that geyser on Enceladus ... it was just a fart"
  • Last I checked, Cassini was an ESA (European Space Agency) project.

    I think there are quite a few Slashdotters who need geography lessons.
  • Here's a cool video of the Enceladus-flyby compiled using Cassini's latest images. It shows the flyby from Cassini's POV - approach, closest passing and outbound phase: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5PqLPU2VA4 [youtube.com]
  • Calling this a bust is completely unfounded; if you just read the comments being made by the Cassini team itself...

    http://blogs.nasa.gov/cm/blog/Enceladus%20Flyby/posts/post_1205608134918.html [nasa.gov]

    Paul

    ________________

    The Meridiani Journal
    a chronicle of planetary exploration
    web.mac.com/meridianijournal/ [slashdot.org]
    • I meant to note that the Cassini team is also hinting at some exciting findings to be announced withn the next couple weeks or so, at the link I had just posted. All of the instruments, except the CDA, worked perfectly during the flyby.

      Paul
      ___________
      The Meridiani Journal
      a chronicle of planetary exploration
      http://web.mac.com/meridianijournal [mac.com]

It was kinda like stuffing the wrong card in a computer, when you're stickin' those artificial stimulants in your arm. -- Dion, noted computer scientist

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