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Mars Climate Orbiter AWOL 114

Moose2000 writes " The BBC reports that NASA has lost contact with the Mars Climate Orbiter. If it doesn't get back in touch, it's not just the immediate science stuff lost - it was supposed to stay in orbit as a communications relay for future missions too. " Communication has been lost for almost 3 hours now, it appears - so there's still hope. Update: 09/23 01:36 by H :It now appears that a steering problem may have caused it to crash into the planet.
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Mars Climate Orbiter AWOL

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  • Sorry to be crude here, but this is such a strange analogy, I have to make it:

    Sure, NASA only immediately reports good news - you'd tell your friends the instant you got MCSE certified, but you wouldn't call them up and tell them you just shit your pants... but if you were forced to relay bad news like NASA ultimately is, you'd at least try to change pants first, right? So it wouldn't be totally humiliating...

    NASA was trying to get the comm feed back, so no, they didn't trumpet their bad news instantaneously. That way lies a PR nightmare: We got it! We lost it! Nope, we got it again, wait, we lost it, nah, there it is, oh wait, gone, hang on, there it is!

    Much better to say "We had some trouble, lost the feed, but we got it back again."
  • 1. They still (at 12:20 Eastern) have not regained contact.

    2. As has allready been pointed out the Mars Global Surveyor can also act as a relay.

    3. the lander has a low gain attenna on it that it can use to communicate with Earth directly if needed.
  • If they create a microscopic black hole the damage is more likely to be done by that black hole 'evapourating' and causing a very big explosion.
  • Stop screwing up our probes. They won't be able to see you anyway.
  • Ooops, sorry. Article was slashdotted when I tried.
  • Uh, try reading it again, says right now that they believe that is in orbit but are trying to regain contact....they have not found it yet.
  • i have read, on i believe that the polar lander has its own radio and will still be able to perform its mission, but not was well and will not be able to send back all the data it could if the relay was in place.
  • Acording to CNN a human or software error sent the orbiter into orbit much to close to the surface for it have possibly survived.
  • Go here if you want to see a newer story about the mars observer on BBC 55000/455807.stm
  • Your clock is 6 minutes slow.

    "The number of suckers born each minute doubles every 18 months."
  • Just saw this myself. Damned shame. Not good timing either, with the Congress eying the money going into NASA like a bunch of beggers on the street. Combine this with the Shuttle fleet being grounded until November at least, and it really does not bode well for NASA's ability to lobby for further funds for at least another couple years. I do hope this does not go down as human arrogance like Observer was. On that one JPL opened a valve that was not supposed to be (the engineers even told them, but JPL knows best), and flooded the probe with fuel. They lit off the engine and *blam* no more probe.

    Damned shame. We could have learned so much.
  • Too bad I blew all my moderation points yesterday.

    "The number of suckers born each minute doubles every 18 months."
  • looks like the climate orbiter really crashed, we have to wait until another 2 years for next mars orbiter. Hopefully polarlander's onboard radio is good enough to send back useble data. "The next Michal Dell" zheng
  • It looks like the surveyor has been lost. I don't know how to feel about this one. I'd like to see everything go private, but this still sucks. Those guys at NASA really work their asses off.

    My .02
    Quux26 []

    My .02
  • Crossing all those millions of miles obviously put the probe a bazillion time zones ahead of us. The resulting navigational error was simply the result of unforeseen Y2K problems of course!
  • Well, we sci-fi fans must be having fun with this one. We've lost contact with this while orbiting Mars. I mean, MARS. You know, the planet that is most likely to sustain life? I don't know about you but I'm going home early and hiding in a bomb shelter for at least a week. I think Geeks in Space had something with their theory. Let the Krull invasion begin.

  • First they got the Russian ones...
    Now this?

    I say, let's send them a nuke. If it don't blow the marcians surface then we know somebody else is out there.
  • " I mean, MARS. You know, the planet that is most likely to sustain life?" I always thought earth was the most likely to sustain life.

  • I haven't seen mention in any of the articles how NASA actually knew that the MCO passed too close to Mars. Does anyone have an explanation for how they could have gone from thinking it might have been a little off course to being sure it must have come in 100km too low? Seems fishy to me.
  • They used VxWorks on the first Mars landing mission (the one that worked beyond all expectations). I wonder if they switched to WinCe? Maybe they got a deal on a bunch of old Pentiums, you know the ones where 2+2 = 3.9991.
  • I'm guessing it ran embedded software on double- or triple-redundant systems connected with good old 1970-era MIL-STD-1553 busses. Whatever it was would have to be radiation hardened.

    In the spirit of 'lighter-cheaper-faster' I wouldn't be surprised if NASA already has a standardized hardware layout for all these next generation mini-probes.

    The 1553 bus is _everywhere_ in space. It's even going to be on the ISS. Fortunately the crew will have a wireless LAN and IBM Thinkpad 760's (with Solaris & Win95) as well.
  • The link to the real time telemetry seems to indicate that the probe is still unreachable. The FLORIDA TODAY link says the same (and it seems to be updated very rapidly). Can you provide a URL?
  • 57 satellites and I still can't get the dad-blasted Playboy Channel! Yow!

  • Gino wrote:
    > here is a link to the real time telemetry
    > of the orbiter.

    Oh great. Now we're about to slashdot the orbiter! ;)
  • They found the probe, but still, facts need to be pointed out.

    First off, the loss to us now would have been much greater than the loss would've been in the future. Not only would we lose the climatological data, but we'd also lose the Mars Polar lander, which may be our best bet for finding water on Mars.

    As for use in future missions, there's only one possible mission that it would be used as a relay for (in 2003, I believe) and even then, it wouldn't be a primary tool, but a backup in case the main transceiver goes down in orbit. The mission is only scheduled for a 3-4 year life span, so any use after that is purely speculative.
  • The telemetry just switched from offline to safe mode using the older communications system. This is a demonstration of why backups and redundancy are important! Now if only my wife could understand this logic!
  • This is exactly why Deep Space 1 was created: it sounds to me as if the reason Climate Orbiter is lost is a very small error. With an AI in that satellite, the correction would have been trivial.

    Pleasepleaseplease don't make this push back the space program a few years! Failure is part of the space program, but the stupid Senators think they're wasting US money when a probe is lost; it's not wasted money, it's an investment for the successes that come from learning from those errors.

    Well; there's still hope. Let us pray the patron saint of Space Flight.

    "There is no surer way to ruin a good discussion than to contaminate it with the facts."

  • When SOHO got lost they used the Aricebo radio telescope to find it by bouncing radar beams off of it. However, that won't work this time around because Mars is currently near -24 degrees declination, which is outside of Aricebo's coverage area.

    The folks in the space program are some of the most resourceful people in the world and excel at thinking outside of the box. Let's hope they come up with something creative once again.
  • We could have. Maybe that's the problem. All the secret societies of the world are coming out of the woodwork. I suspect the Illuminati, but I wouldn't put it past the CIA either. I mean, these are the people that have been hiding the existence of aliens for years now.
  • This page looks like it will get updated within seconds of reestablishing communication. []

    My .02
    Quux26 []

    My .02
  • Just found out about the re-gain of contact with the Mars Orbiter. Don't believe it. We'll never see that thing again. It's a cover up. They know its been stolen by the Krull and we are paying them to spare us. Why do you think NASA needs all that extra money? Embezzlement my ass. The know and fear the Krull. I'm gonna go back into my bombshelter now if you don't mind.
  • The "LIVE TELEMETRY" data you can get off their site is in the form of a GIF. It would be nice if we could get that stuff in HTML. I would like to make a screenscreen display, graphically, of that data.

    Too bad.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    In the CNN article they complained that finding the satellite is damn hard because of all the bacground noise. You have to know precisely where to direct the radio telescope. Now we are tracking aliens using the SETI project. But could it be made to work to find the missing satellites? Then there would be some real use for our CPUs.

    Finding missing satellites sure seems a lot more practical than burning my CPU to search for some nonexistent extraterrestrial life.

    Regards AC

  • They said it was 15 miles low of it's minimum altitude, when it fired it's orbital insertion motors, and looks to be a complete loss. er.04/
  • Ever get that creepy Deja Vu feeling?
  • "You blew it up! Damn you! Damn you all to hell!"

    But seriously, now how long do we have to wait before another orbiter arrives? Talk about frustrating...

  • Not exactly. The Apollo Command/Service Module (the lunar orbiter) ran on two fuel cells. The Command Module, when seperated from the Service Module, ran on batteries designed to provide just enough power for reentry. The Lunar Module used batteries (may have been fuel cells, but I doubt it). The Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Packages, which were left on the moon, were what used the RTG. When they ditched the lander after using it as a lifeboat, the RTG would have reentered. So there was an RTG, but it wasn't powering the orbiter and was supposed to have been left on the moon.
  • It was on day 286 of its mission...
  • Ah yes, if it ever comes back up it will crash in the logical sense rather than the physical sense as thousands of /.ers attempt to study its generally meaningless (to most of us) telementry.
  • by Tackhead ( 54550 ) on Thursday September 23, 1999 @09:12AM (#1665264)
    It appears as if MCO entered orbit "too low", and burned up in the atmosphere. (85km minimum survivable altitude, ~60km expected altitude of probe). Doesn't this sound like something you've heard people worrying about before?

    Scientific Reality:The ability of Mission Control to save a "too low" probe during an Earth flyby, (with the probe within a few light-seconds of the transmitter), is a hell of a lot higher than the ability of Mission Control to save a "too low" probe near Mars, (i.e. at a distance of many light-minutes). Thus, the probability of an MCO-style worst-case scenario happening to an RTG-based probe on Earth flyby (I don't recall even the most ardent eco-dude worried about the Venus flyby :-) is still negligible.

    (You'll also note that I'm assuming, deliberately and incorrectly, that the dispersal of Cassini's plutonium in Earth's atmosphere would be the catastrophe the anti-nukes told us it would be. It wouldn't. Before they were banned, above-ground nuclear weapons tests had already dispersed many Cassinis' worth of plutonium into the atmosphere, and we're still alive.)

    Political Reality:Unfortunately, the naive analysis, which is the only thing the media will propagate, and the only thing the politicians will understand - will read something like this: "We told you so! This is exactly what those eeeeeevil scientists said could never happen with Cassini! But we KNEW! We knew that NASA can't be trusted to fly its probes perfectly, but nobody listened to us! Well, yer gonna hafta listen now! MCO burned up in the atmosphere just like we feared Cassini would! We were right and the eeeeeevil scientists were wrong! Ban all RTGs now before NASA does this with an RTG-based probe in Earth's atmosphere!" And the politicians will obey the screaming hordes.

    The loss of MCO is bad for Mars science, but not catastrophic, given the redundancy NASA is putting into its Mars program. Lots of small ships is better than one big ship. The political fallout from the preceding naive analysis of MCO's fiery demise, however, will be much longer-lived and carry a much higher price than the loss of one probe.

    If we're lucky, it'll be limited to a ban on Earth flybys for any future RTG-based probes. If we're unlucky, it'll spell the end of RTGs altogether.

    While you can easily explore the inner planets on solar power, and maybe even Jupiter if you're careful and advance solar technology somewaht, the mass penalty for larger-and-larger solar panels increases dramatically as you move away from the sun. If one of the side-effects of the MCO failure results in a ban on RTGs, we can basically forget about exploring the outer solar system for at least a generation (i.e. until we can come up with a better technology). That would be a major blow to space science.

  • Well I was under the impression that Phoebos and Deimos were both captured asteroids. Hence they would not neccesarily fall into a nice even orbit like Earth's moon as they could have been captured when incoming on any strange trajectory.
  • Does anyone know in what area it would have gone down if it would have managed to hit the ground in basicly one piece? If this was anywhere even vaguely near Cydonia, Art Bell and his ilk will have a field day on this one...
  • And too bad I've posted under this article already. Maybe we should be allowed to moderate under article we have posted in, but just not our own messages....
  • If it was that far ahead might it have not been hit by the dreaded Y10K bug? Since noone has bothered to put a 5th year digit in their dat fields it would have overflowed and thought it heading to where mars was in 9999BCE or so. Since it was expecting landing guidance from the Martian civilization that was at its height in that era. It would also have simply ignored any Earthly guidance as any signals from Earth in that time would have been an accident on the part of some pre-metalurgic hunter-gathererers who know nothing about celestial navigation.
  • Perhaps we should start a grass-roots, OpenSource Mars Probe effort. Rather then using WindowsCE, it can use embedded Linux. Navigation AI can be written as an Emacs LISP extension. Before entering orbit or aero-braking, we can disperse a constellation of Palm/ucLinux mini-probes to stay in radio contact with the probe while it is on the away-side of the planet.
  • NASA is back in contact. . .
  • If it is gone (and I'm hoping fervently that it isn't), then we've got a lot to thank Deep Space 1 for.
    The beeb lists four or five possibilities, and most of them could have been taken care of by the new technologies on DS1. If MCO did lose its way, it may be one of the last NASA craft to do so.
    Let's just hope that it's only in safe mode.
  • Now Mars Climate Orbiter goes silent.

    If it STAYS silent, there's a pattern forming that will bring the conspiracy theorists out of the closet.

    Still, contact was lost AFTER a engine burn, just as Mars Observer disappeared after a scheduled burn. It's been theorized that Observer blew up, due to a design fault. Let's hope that it just went into that "safe mode", and not that our probe design teams need a major re-working. . .

  • by Gino ( 32932 ) on Wednesday September 22, 1999 @11:26PM (#1665278) Homepage
    I hope they manage to re-establish contact... Moments like these are the worst, racking your brains thinking of ways how to solve the problem, wondering what went wrong.

    Anyway, for those interested, if they do manage to make contact again here is a link to the real time telemetry [] of the orbiter. the pricking of my thumbs,

  • Yeah, strange that it was the Beeb that reported it missing, not NASA's news feed! I guess that is only for good news.


  • It seems this happens with every other probe they send up. Given that they could still contact the Voyagers when they were way out past Neptune[0], is it really too much to expect that they should be able to stay reliably in touch with something a mere ~40 million miles away?


    [0]OOI, is Neptune still the furthest planet out, or has Pluto's wacky orbit taken it out past Neptune again?
  • NASA's news feed reports that they have regained contact with the probe.

    We've got no proof of that. It's blatantly a coverup. The aliens have captured the probe, and NASA is putting out "everything is okay" misinformation.

    Guess the aliens got bored with it :-)

    No! They're experimenting with it and plotting our destruction right now! The world will end on December 31, 1999!

  • Press F1 to continue...

    There's never a damn keyboard in deep space when you need one is there! ;)
  • Florida Today's Space Online [] is running a regularly updated journal for the orbiter. The last entry was made at 7:45 ETD, stating that no contact has been re-established yet... the pricking of my thumbs,

  • No, we wouldn't have lost Polar Lander. The Mars Global Surveyor is capible as acting as a backup relay in the event of catastrophic failure in the Mars Climate Observer.
  • Now if only my wife could understand this logic!

    as well as your girlfriend and mistress do :-)

    the AC

  • What operating system was it using and can the martians use it to make a sweet beowulf cluster?

    "In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded"
    - Charles Golding, Big Bang Theory

  • This is not good timing for NASA really. They were told to do missions faster, cheaper and better and so far it looks like they've got two out of three :-). Problem is it looks like Congress is keen to chop some budget and so they go for the stuff without political backing - i.e the faster, cheaper projects...

    Bit of a bummer for all those PhD students who were expecting to do their thesis work on the back of it though.
  • Is it just me, or has everything we've aimed at Mars since the Viking mission somehow gotten lost along the way, fallen out of contact, or experienced technological malfunction? Coincidence or conspiracy?

  • Corrected URL: []

    (trust me, it's different)


    Where is it?! Where is everyone getting this info from? Include links if you're going to tell us that it's been found...
  • Speaking of RTGs IIRC the Apollo lunar orbiter module used an RTG for power, certainly it was a plutonium source. When Apollo 13 had to abort and return to earth in the RTG ended up reentering into the pacific ocean. They are designed to withstand significant impact without containment failure.
  • Really good and quick "caveat emptor, we'll be okay" analysis of the unfortunate happenstance at BBC News. [] I highly recommend it.
  • 'twas a Father Ted "eejit".

    Oh, Ted, I've got some great news.

    Oh, what's that? Have you been nominated for eejit priest of the year again?


  • ...for ruining my day again. :-)

    It's pathetic how far that dork is sticking his head out to preserve his dippy cities-on-mars thesis.

  • If it was that far ahead might it have not been hit by the dreaded Y10K bug? Since noone has bothered to put a 5th year digit in their dat fields it would have overflowed and thought it heading to where mars was in 9999BCE or so.

    What Y10K bug? See RFC 2550 [] for a fix.
  • Part of the reason NASA is sending several satillites(Climate Explorer and Surveyor)is to have a little redundancy. Polar Lander can use the antenna of Mars Global Surveyor to relay info back to earth. In addition, Polar Lander will have an orbital component which can relay I believe.
  • The latest breaking news on the Mars Orbiter can be found at Astronomy Now [].

    It's got to be Elvis. Not only did the Mars Observer "disappear" in early 1993, but the Soviets/Russians had two spacecraft fail (and disappear) just the year before.

  • by Dave Muench ( 21979 ) on Wednesday September 22, 1999 @11:45PM (#1665311)
    I don't suppose NASA painted a picture of a Dove on the side of it, did they?
  • Pluto (as of a few months ago) is the farthest planet out. Before then for the course of several years it was neptune.

    The Voyager probes had some nice things that the mars probes don't... huge budgets and nuclear reactors, especially.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 22, 1999 @11:47PM (#1665314)
    Please continue sending your crunchy satellites on a bi-annual schedule. This corresponds nicely to our feeding and breeding schedule. Failure to comply would be bad.

    *Big Martian dude out.*
  • by gorilla ( 36491 ) on Wednesday September 22, 1999 @11:54PM (#1665316)
    Once the probe is launched, the most dangerous time is when it's manouvering - an engine can blow up, or disorient the probe so it looses contact with it's base stations, so the distance isn't really relevent at all, it's more to do with the number of course corrections required.

    Obviously, it requires a much more precise heading to get into orbit around a planet than to simply flyby, and consequently the Martian probes require more course corrections than the Voyager probes did.

    Also, and this factor cannot be forgotten, Voyager dates from NASA's "rich" time, when they could spend billions of dollars on a probe. These modern probes have had an order of magnitude less money spend on them. This means less redudancy, less testing, and therefore less reliablity.

    Pluto is again the furthest planet out. It passed outside of Neptune's orbit last year.

  • I bet Richard Hoagland is going to love this.

  • by drwiii ( 434 )
    Well THAT explains it []...

    Where the hell is it, Lewbowski? We gonna cut off yo' Jshonson...
  • moderated comments also affect your karma.
    but his Karma is going negative because his comment was a misleading lie, which is why the comment is already moderated down.
  • ..the martian AA guns ain't easy either.

  • by Enoch Root ( 57473 ) on Thursday September 23, 1999 @06:54AM (#1665322)
    From Florida Today Space Online []:

    NASA's decade-long program to explore Mars likely suffered a major setback today with the loss of the Climate Orbiter spacecraft dispatched to understand the Red Planet's weather. Space agency officials just announced at a news conference that the satellite may have plunged into the Martian atmosphere due to a catastrophic navigation error. Ground controllers had expected the craft to pass 140 or 150 km above the planet's surface during the closest approach as MCO entered orbit around Mars this morning. However, for some reason not yet known, MCO appears to have made the closest approach at 60 km. NASA says it suspects 85 km to be the minimum altitude that the satellite could have survived. Given that fact, optimism that MCO is still alive and orbiting about Mars is now rather low. But further attempts will be made to contact the satellite until it becomes completely clear MCO did indeed crash.

    A "Tiger Team" has been formed to determine how the navigation error occurred, whether it was spacecraft, software, human error or some other factor that caused the mishap.

    Ah, shit.

    "There is no surer way to ruin a good discussion than to contaminate it with the facts."

  • The distance from us isn't what's important -- it's the distance from the Martian guns that really counts. Shooting at the V'ger ships at that range would take incredible marksmanship, whereas these probes to Mars are sitting ducks.

    Have a Sloppy day!
  • I'm expecting a message from Mars soon...


    Who says Clarke got all the details right?
  • Hey guys, this is no biggie. If I understood that last story about the probe that was posted here it clearly stated that we were supposed to loose contact. The final commands given to the probe were instructions to perform aerobraking orbits around mars. The first aerobraking orbit (due today) was supposed to take it around the far side of mars and out of radio contact for a good while. I think this loss of communication is all part of the plan.
  • Does anybody know if this screws up the Polar Lander mission? I read that the Orbiter was to be used to relay data back to Earth from the Lander on the Mars surface, but though I assume the Lander can operate independently if need be I haven't been able to find info on this yet on the Nasa sites.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Your 30 Day trial just finished. Please register this control software. ;-)
  • From the article: Engineers hope that the spacecraft has entered a "safe mode" with its internal computer executing commands designed to put it back into normal operation.

    Damn, our space program running on Win95?
  • by Gino ( 32932 ) on Thursday September 23, 1999 @12:11AM (#1665333) Homepage
    I would love to believe that they've regained contact. But according to all my news sources they've not yet managed to do so! The latest update I have from Space Online [] is time stamped at 8:55 ETD and the news is still NO contact!

    Moderators please! Don't give unfounded news items such a high score. The AC didn't even give a link to his news source! the pricking of my thumbs,

  • Apologies for the typo, should of course read 08:55 EDT!

    I am on GMT myself... the pricking of my thumbs,

Competence, like truth, beauty, and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder. -- Dr. Laurence J. Peter