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Space Bug

A Programing Error Blasted 19 Russian Satellites Back Towards Earth (arstechnica.com) 90

An anonymous reader quotes Ars Technica's report on Russia's failed attempt to launch 19 satellites into orbit on Tuesday: Instead of boosting its payload, the Soyuz 2.1b rocket's Fregat upper stage fired in the wrong direction, sending the satellites on a suborbital trajectory instead, burning them up in Earth's atmosphere... According to normally reliable Russian Space Web, a programming error caused the Fregat upper stage, which is the spacecraft on top of the rocket that deploys satellites, to be unable to orient itself. Specifically, the site reports, the Fregat's flight control system did not have the correct settings for a mission launching from the country's new Vostochny cosmodrome. It evidently was still programmed for Baikonur, or one of Russia's other spaceports capable of launching the workhorse Soyuz vehicle. Essentially, then, after the Fregat vehicle separated from the Soyuz rocket, it was unable to find its correct orientation. Therefore, when the Fregat first fired its engines to boost the satellites into orbit, it was still trying to correct this orientation -- and was in fact aimed downward toward Earth. Though the Fregat space tug has been in operation since the 1990s, this is its fourth failure -- all of which have happened within the last 8 years.

"In each of the cases, the satellite did not reach its desired orbit," reports Ars Technica, adding "As the country's heritage rockets and upper stages continue to age, the concern is that the failure rate will increase."

A Programing Error Blasted 19 Russian Satellites Back Towards Earth

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  • by FudRucker ( 866063 ) on Saturday December 02, 2017 @02:39PM (#55664709)
    an "In Soviet Russia" joke hiding in there somewhere
  • by ytene ( 4376651 ) on Saturday December 02, 2017 @02:47PM (#55664745)
    There is a weird statement in the original coverage from Ars. Having initially explained that the reason for the failure was due to an incorrect configuration setting, the quote then goes on to show where Ars states, "As the country's heritage rockets and upper stages continue to age, the concern is that the failure rate will increase."

    But the nature of this specific failure mode has absolutely nothing to do with the age of the rockets or stages, but was due instead to one or more lapses in pre-flight checks of the configuration parameters for the launch. We don't even know for sure if the part which failed (the Fregat Upper Stage) was set by the launch agency directly, or the satellite manufacturer.

    In a similar way, the comments also imply that the vehicles themselves age in some way - despite the fact that the cost and complexity of them means that they are literally custom-made for each launch. They are certainly not left languishing "on the shelf" for months or years before use.

    Don't get me wrong, any launch failure is unwanted and to be avoided at all costs - regardless of the nationality or company involved. But in this case, I'm not sure the coverage reflects reality.
    • by rmdingler ( 1955220 ) on Saturday December 02, 2017 @03:00PM (#55664805) Journal

      Early reporting of disasters is always rife with inaccuracy, and someone may have wanted to jump the facts with some speculation about the malfunction.

      The rocket was programmed to orient from the old spaceport in Baikonur, rather than it's launch from the new Vostochny cosmodrome. Some poor fellow's wearing a massive face palm right now.

      • Ahhh! And some insight into the roots of some "Fake News" becomes apparent.

        Agreed, totally, with 'ytene', and generally, with 'rmdingler'.

        The "Fake" part is that it is apparent that some reports expect us to believe that, even though this launch is (new), that there is something 'old' causing issues.
        Shame on the initial reporter to suggest or imply that an old program is to blame.
        More like new personnel doing poor jobs putting this rocket together.

        Yep, there seems to be lots of inaccuracies and sp
    • But the nature of this specific failure mode has absolutely nothing to do with the age of the rockets or stages, but was due instead to one or more lapses in pre-flight checks of the configuration parameters for the launch.

      Either that, or this was a test of a FOBS (Fractional Orbit Bombardment System)....

    • While that sounds right, and I thought the same thing at first, it may be that they also have newer upper stages with better error detection electronics.

      We don't know. It might be accurate and a clue where they said too much, or it might be a mistake of translation or reporting.

      Just because it is "custom made for each launch" doesn't mean all the parts were manufactured this year. Also, we don't know if the parts they claim to use are really the parts they do use; and they provide their own oversight so no

    • by ghoul ( 157158 )

      "As the country's heritage rockets and upper stages continue to age, the concern is that the failure rate will increase." is just stupid.

      In rocketry an older system means a proven system and is SAFER. The failure here was because it was a NEW configuration launching from a NEW launchstation.

      If everything had been AGED, it would have gone fine.

      Goes to show just because you get to write an article doesnt mean you are not stupid, it just means you are good at stringing words together.

    • As the country's heritage rockets and upper stages continue to age

      The way that probably should have been worded was "as the nations experienced rocket scientists continue to age..."

      Just all around it would appear the whole Russian rocketry program is decaying. Makes you wonder how the nuclear fleet is faring.

    • by sls1j ( 580823 )
      Maybe it's reffering to the age of the people doing the pre-flight checks. Perhaps their memory is going.
    • It's not being reported, but in the control room, the supervisor, a former drill instructor, was screaming, "Your OTHER up!" :)

      hawk

    • That's not always true, NK-33 engines were launched decades after being made. Space shuttle engines are being brought out of retirement for the SLS.

  • to carry our astronauts to the space station.

  • by Vulch ( 221502 ) on Saturday December 02, 2017 @03:14PM (#55664865)

    Nineteen Russian satellites? Well, including the 12 American, the Canadian one, the Norwegian one, two from Sweden and the one from Germany that is...

    • by Anonymous Coward

      "Nineteen Russian satellites?" They became Russia's satellites the minute they failed to reach orbit. The "break it you buy it" orbital services contract clause went into effect.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 02, 2017 @03:20PM (#55664887)

    The rocket was Russian, but the satellites that were riding on it were from various countries: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/russian-rocket-launch-1.4422547 "The booster also carried 18 micro satellites built in Canada, Germany, Japan, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States."

  • This is user error. It's like going to Google Maps and plugging in a route for New York to Atlanta when you live in LA, and then wondering why you don't have directions to Denver. Then you drive around aimlessly looking for the tunnels, end up in a bad neighborhood and get robbed.

    • It happens to me every time I use Google Maps for directions, because I keep location off until I need it, and I'm usually indoors with no GPS (and I don't let it use network location) and so it thinks I am starting from wherever I last used the GPS. Which is usually some remote place in the mountains, wherever I was parked when I returned to my vehicle and turned of GPS.

      Unlike the Russian rocket though, it updates automatically as soon as I walk outside.

    • Why was Russia trying to put a bunch of satellites in Denver?

  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Saturday December 02, 2017 @06:24PM (#55665589) Homepage Journal

    Actually this is fairly typical of rocket science, at least as I understand it. Spacecraft are complex systems where they only way to avoid catastrophe is to get an almost incomprehensible number of easy-to-overlook details right. Maybe it's the unit conversions, or the temperature rating of the booster O-rings, or the combustibility of cabin materials in a pure oxygen atmosphere.

    Maybe this is not what we programmers would technically call a "programming error", although other people might characterize it that way, but it comes from a practice that is all-too-familiar: cutting values from one source and pasting them into another, something you do for convenience but which opens the door for details to be wrong in an unexpected way.

  • I don't mean to be morbid, as this is a pretty frustrating thing if you're an engineer of any sort, but does anyone have a link to a video of the incident?

  • by johannesg ( 664142 ) on Sunday December 03, 2017 @04:56AM (#55667179)

    From what I can tell, the programming on the spacecraft functioned fine, and operated according to the time-honored "garbage in, garbage out" principle. It was given instructions to orient itself towards Earth and ignite its engines, and it did. Those instructions were wrong, but that is very much a configuration error, not a programming error.

    Stop blaming programmers for all the world's ills.

  • Reminds me of the time I ruined a contractor's demo. He had written a ballistic missile program that I had prototyped, and I was ticked that I did not get to write it myself (petty, I know). When they let me try it out, I deliberately picked a target that his software could not find the solution for - locking up the demo. I just shrugged and gave the "French salute" (at the time, the French salute was a form of shrug with both hands held at shoulder level) and departed the demo.

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