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Thursday, November 11, 1999 Published at 01:43 GMT


Orbiter loss blamed on 'silly mistakes'

The Mars Climate Orbiter

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

The $125m Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft, that should have gone into orbit around Mars on 30 September but instead burnt-up in the planet's atmosphere, was lost because of a catalogue of rather silly mistakes and sloppy management, says a just released report.

In order to prevent the same thing happening to the Mars Polar lander spacecraft, which will touch down on Mars on 3 December, Nasa says "managerial and technical actions are under way".

"We have mobilised the very best talent at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to respond thoroughly to the specific recommendations in the board's report and the other areas of concern highlighted by the board," said Dr Edward Stone, director of JPL.

[ image: There was shock in MCO mission control]
There was shock in MCO mission control
"We are committed to doing whatever it takes to maximise the prospects for a successful landing on Mars on 3 December."

Instead of passing about 150 km above the Martian atmosphere before entering orbit, the spacecraft actually passed about 60 km above the surface.

This was far too close and the spacecraft burnt up due to friction with the atmosphere.

Shortly after the loss, mission controllers said it was due to a basic error - English and metric units were mixed up.

Mission 'not viewed as a whole'

The failure board's report confirms this, and goes on to identify many more factors that led directly or indirectly to the loss of the spacecraft.

It says that mission planners did not view the mission as a whole, which led to one series of engineers and planners failing to realise exactly what other groups were doing.

But it says that the "root cause" of the loss of the spacecraft was the failure to convert English measurement units into metric units in the navigation software.

Arthur Stephenson, chairman of the Mars Climate Orbiter Mission Failure Investigation Board said: "The failure review board has identified other significant factors that allowed this error to be born, and then let it linger and propagate to the point where it resulted in a major error in our understanding of the spacecraft's path as it approached Mars.

"Based on these findings, we have communicated a range of recommendations and associated observations to the team planning the landing of the Polar Lander, and the team has given these recommendations some serious attention," he added.

The navigation team was not fully informed on the details of the way that Mars Climate Orbiter was pointed in space, as compared to the earlier Mars Global Surveyor mission

It also says that some personnel were not trained adequately and that communication between project engineering groups was too informal.

The failure board will continue with its investigation and prepare a second report due by next February.

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