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NASA Bug Space

Software Glitch Means Loss of NASA's Deep Impact Comet Probe 65

Taco Cowboy writes "'NASA is calling off attempts to find its Deep Impact comet probe after a suspected software glitch shut down radio communications in August, officials said on Friday.' Last month, engineers lost contact with Deep Impact and unsuccessfully tried to regain communications. The cause of the failure was unknown, but NASA suspects the spacecraft lost control, causing its antenna and solar panels to be pointed in the wrong direction. NASA had hoped Deep Impact would play a key role in observations of the approaching Comet ISON, a suspected first-time visitor to the inner solar system that was discovered in September 2012 by two Russian astronomers. The comet is heading toward a close encounter with the sun in November, a brush that it may not survive." Deep Impact has had a pretty good run, though: from its original mission to launch a copper slug at a comet (hence the name), to looking for Earth-sized planets.
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Software Glitch Means Loss of NASA's Deep Impact Comet Probe

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  • by g01d4 ( 888748 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @10:53PM (#44909613)

    After losing contact with the spacecraft last month, mission controllers spent several weeks trying to uplink commands to reactivate its onboard systems. Although the exact cause of the loss is not known, analysis has uncovered a potential problem with computer time tagging that could have led to loss of control for Deep Impact's orientation. That would then affect the positioning of its radio antennas, making communication difficult, as well as its solar arrays, which would in turn prevent the spacecraft from getting power and allow cold temperatures to ruin onboard equipment, essentially freezing its battery and propulsion systems.

    • by The Grim Reefer ( 1162755 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @11:05PM (#44909685)

      Although the exact cause of the loss is not known, analysis has uncovered a potential problem with computer time tagging

      Upon further analysis it was discovered that while the hardware was designed to run on imperial hours, minutes, and seconds, the software was written using metric time.

    • Although the exact cause of the loss is not known, analysis has uncovered a potential problem with computer time tagging that could have led to loss of control for Deep Impact's orientation.

      Aha! Y2K. The time tagging problem is a little worse than presented.

      • by Shambhu ( 198415 )

        Essentially, yes. National Geographic's piece [nationalgeographic.com] had this quote:

        "Basically, it was a Y2K problem, where some software didn't roll over the calendar date correctly," said A'Hearn. The spacecraft's fault-protection software (ironically enough) would have misread any date after August 11, 2013, he said, triggering an endless series of computer reboots aboard Deep Impact.

        As far as I can tell the significance of that date is that it is approximately 2^32 tenths of a second into the millennium.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    I'm no rocket engineer, but maybe critical systems like "antenna point toward brightest star" should be analog hardware based.
    • Re:That's sad (Score:5, Insightful)

      by bmo ( 77928 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @11:04PM (#44909679)

      I'm not a rocket engineer, and I can build a heliostat that tracks the sun with a couple of photodiodes and a long tube with a central divider, but something tells me that a spacecraft that far out might need something more accurate to, you know, not only see the Sun correctly, but actually aim the high-gain antenna at Earth instead of a point halfway between the us and the Moon.


      • by dutchwhizzman ( 817898 ) on Saturday September 21, 2013 @01:55AM (#44910143)
        In fact, it needs equipment that can take extreme radiation and hits from dust particles travelling at 10000 km/h and faster. The parts you would use on earth wouldn't last a year in space, probably more like a week. The initial design called for a way shorter life time than they got out of it, so parts failure to sensors or other electronics due to impact or radiation is a likely cause. Try running a car without maintenance for 5 years. You may get lucky and still be driving, but chances are extremely small. This mission was similar to that.
        • Try running a car without maintenance for 5 years.

          Automakers are now working on cars designed to run without maintenance for five years. As in, before the first maintenance. They contain extended life coolant and synthetic oil. So far, though, two years is about the practical limit, because coolant breaks down whether it's supposed to or not. That's not bad for a vehicle designed for terrestrial use by the untrained.

    • by Yoda222 ( 943886 )

      I'm not a rocket engineer (never done rockets, I'm more in satellites) but I guess that the antenna are trying to point toward the third planet around this brightest star, not the star itself.

      And I would say that it's easier to implement a robust (with respect to sensor/actuator failure) pointing system with software than with analog hardware. But that's just a guess, feel free to propose me a good hardware design for that. (in fact that's not true for everything, you can have a gravity gradient stabilisati

  • Poor NASA (Score:5, Funny)

    by djupedal ( 584558 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @10:59PM (#44909645)
    Can't find water, can't find methane, can't find their DICP - no wonder they have a hard time finding funding :)
  • It is possible that the spacecraft is going through layers of falesafes, until it finally just points its solar panels at the Sun, points its radio antenna at Earth, and cries for help. Remember the mission to Eros: http://klabs.org/richcontent/Reports/Failure_Reports/NEAR_Rendezvous_Burn.pdf

  • Lemme take another look.

  • This time I think you hacked a bridge too far.
  • Given all the conspiracy theories about the NSA lately, at very least these incidents have me dreaming up a new sci-fi novel, if not full out wondering if it was just a coverup for something way more diabolical.
    • by dbIII ( 701233 )
      Actually that would be cool fiction - what if the NSA was infiltrated by somebody competent instead of James Bond wannabe toy soldiers that believe in lie detector voodoo or former political hacks that want money funnelled secretly into their pockets?
  • We thought V'ger was a threat, just wait for D'p Imp'ct to return to Earth. It will destroy us all with copper slugs from the heavens. Unless we can find someone to talk it down...

  • I suppose EA wrote the program. Then used the same programming for simcity.

  • .... an autonomous robot [slashdot.org] equipped with a sizable kinetic kill warhead has gone rogue?

  • This probe finished its primary mission and performed an extended observation mission it was not specifically designed to perform and did a very good job... and then en route to a second extended mission it suffered an unrecoverable error...

    While it is too bad that the probe has been lost, it did far better than the original design required, and a lot of observations were made long after its primary mission was completed. I say give it a nice memorial and call it above and beyond the call of duty. Gr

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