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Mars Global Surveyor – Survival

Elizabeth Uncategorized October 15, 2021


Mars has a lot of robot corpses on it. Some were a result of programming failure, some were simply planned shutdowns, and some continued for ages after they were supposed to expire, collecting valuable data and sending it back to Earth.

As for what we know now, we’ve learned that Mars’s atmosphere is weak and thin, but still thick enough to have a little weather, Mars itself has a very poor magnetic field, Mars has evidence of water once existing on-planet, but doesn’t have any known sources near the surface, and Mars may have had a partially molten mantle and tectonic plates to go with it at some point in it’s history.

We know that all of this is connected! Magnetic fields protect atmospheres from being blown away from solar radiation – the Earth has a particularly powerful field compared to Mars’s weaker one. Earth’s tectonic movement is linked to its liquid core and putty-like mantle; Mars’s lack of tectonic movement points to a molten inner core and a solid, cooled mantle. Water boils faster the less atmospheric pressure it’s under, so any surface water Mars had was likely evaporated and then blown off into space once some of the atmosphere disintegrated, also a result of its weak magnetic field. All of it is connected. Being able to see details up close made it possible to connect these dots on Mars.

A lot of information about Mars’s weather and overall surface comes from information sent back from orbiters – the rovers and explorers can take samples of soil and provide granular detail, but we rely on orbiters to see the bigger picture.

The Surveyor, and Launch

The new Global Surveyor was large.

The surveyor launched from Cape Canaveral in 1996, and arrived in Mars’s orbit in 1997, about ten months after it’s initial launch. The thing weighed a little over a ton, about 2,270 lbs, and was assembled in a Lockheed Martin facility in Denver; it would be solar powered, like many of Mars’s projects are, and it would use those solar panels for aerobraking as well as power. The panels allowed the orbiter to dip into the atmosphere slightly to slow and steer itself into its proper orbit, and allowed for extremely fine-tuned control of said orbit. The high point was a mere 280 miles off the surface of Mars – perfect for getting readings of that enigmatic ionosphere.

With some delays due to re-positioning, the orbiter was able to begin taking mapping photos officially in 1999, orbiting in sync with the Sun so that changes in shadows wouldn’t interfere with the images.


The global surveyor worked exactly as planned! Even better, it continued working – it lasted much longer than its initial mission goal of making it to 2001, and provided invaluable information about the planet’s surface for nearly a decade. Landing sites. Weather patterns. The entire surface. This orbiter was truly a breakthrough in an era that would come to be dominated by Mars-related robot splatters. The Global Surveyor helped direct other orbiters and sent back pictures and readings about everything on Mars, including readings about its ionosphere. In 1999, it began mapping the surface of the red planet; in 2001, its mission was extended after it had already taken more pics than all of the other Mars projects combined; in 2004, it caught some candid shots of the Spirit rover on the surface; in 2005, it captured pictures of Odyssey and Mars Express while both were on their way to the planet.

Across its long life above the surface, it also witnessed Mars’s CO2-ice poles change shape and size, witnessed new impact craters, spotted very solid evidence that Mars once had water for the first time, and witnessed storms only Mars’s weak atmosphere could produce. It sent back 240,000 pictures of Mars to Earth, and was the longest-living Martian project at the time. This was an incredible tool, one that provided incredible insight into what Mars was really like. Telescopes can see a long way – that’s nothing compared to getting up close and personal with an orbiter.


The good news couldn’t go on forever. This is an article about a dead orbiter, after all. What exactly went wrong?

The orbiter had two copies of its system software as a redundancy. One operator on Earth updated one system, and a different one updated the other; they realized the orbiter was returning errors because it used both copies in operation. An update correcting those updates introduced a memory fault, and then a command to adjust its solar panels sent the machine into a safe mode, causing it to lose contact for a few days. It misinterpreted a reading for battery overheat as a reading for battery overcharge – both are bad, and both require different solutions. A battery overheat needs repositioning to get the overheated battery out of the sun, while an overcharge needs an immediate power cut so it doesn’t short out other things.

One response puts the device into safe mode; being in safe mode was a bad thing when the battery was overheating. Once it cut power, it was stuck in the position that overheated the battery, and that led to the final, fatal issues with the orbiter. NASA managed to ping it again, weakly, but they discovered it couldn’t communicate with the robots on the ground, and so declared the mission over. It’s still in a good, stable orbit – NASA says they expect it to crash into the surface in about 2047.

This particular mission is a highlight to NASA’s turbulent history with Mars robots. Other projects before and after often suffered from failures; a couple of upcoming missions would shake faith in NASA’s ability to manage itself. This orbiter failed because of a software bug introduced in an update, the other two were doomed before they even launched!


Mars Orbiter: Measuring Matters

Elizabeth Technology April 5, 2021


Picture the time: it’s 1999, and we’re in a new era of peace. We’re between major wars, communism has been cornered in small pockets, the economy’s doing fine, the Berlin Wall fell some time ago, and the hole in the Ozone Layer at least isn’t getting any worse. And 9/11 hasn’t happened yet.

It really felt like this was the era we’d get to Star Trek levels of technological advancement! The future was bright and ready for humanity to take the next big leap forward.

Enter: NASA. We’d landed on the moon, we’d launched satellites, and we’d sent landers to Mars. Now, we were going to send more, with better tech and better tools. It was still kind of a flex of US propulsion systems, but it was more about the learning we’d get from it.

Mars is a popular target for many reasons. The primary one is the lack of acid clouds and hellfire found on Venus – landers sent there don’t last very long at all. Besides that, Mars is more likely to support life. It has some amount of frozen water on the surface, a thin atmosphere with weather, and some movement in the mantle. If there’s anywhere people could live besides Earth in the solar system, it’s probably going to be Mars. Moon bases are a cool idea, but the moon doesn’t have nearly as much water as Mars does, and no atmosphere is a big downgrade from thin atmosphere. Not to mention things like gravity – astronauts who spend a lot of time in space come back with weaker bones and elongated spines. The moon will make you taller than Mars will, but you’ll also get weaker, faster.

 The Mission

The orbiter being sent this time was meant to analyze the atmosphere of Mars, safely, from a high orbit. The orbiter was assembled by both NASA and outside contractors who could make the specialized equipment, and nothing had gone wrong during the building process – yet. What had actually happened was a piece of software made by Lockheed Martin was delivering results in the wrong units. It was using the American pound-seconds, instead of Newton-seconds like the rest of the craft.

Lockheed had been sending their data like this the entire time. The NASA team assembling the orbiter was aware of this and was translating their data into the correct format, but they hadn’t yet programmed this into the craft. Final assembly came and went, and officially, no issues were reported. Unofficially, a couple of software engineers on the project had discovered an issue with data sent to the orbiter during tests, but – allegedly – didn’t fill the forms out correctly, so the problem was dismissed.

The orbiter is launched into space. Several months pass, and all is going according to plan. Everything at this moment is relying on other, in-house software without the conversion problem, so the launch goes fine, the thing’s on the right trajectory, etc. etc. When the orbiter is sent out on its own, however, engineers discover a problem they can’t fix: the thing’s not where they thought it would be. It’s very close to Mars. It’s at the lowest it can be and still survive, so engineers didn’t panic right then and there. They don’t know about the software bug. They began corrective maneuvers, but lost contact with the orbiter as it disappeared behind Mars. Anxiously, NASA waited for it to reappear, but it never did. They’d lost a project.


The silence in that room must have been deafening.

The AfterMath

Wikipedia calls its death “unintentionally deorbited” which is kind of funny. NASA accepted full blame for the project’s failure, and essentially said their quality control hadn’t been up to snuff. Errors detected when the orbiter was still on the ground went ignored, and Lockheed was supposed to be converting its software to metric before it sent it to NASA (allegedly – Simspace mentions this, but NASA’s release does not).

Ultimately, the unit the contractor’s software was using was 4.45 times greater than anything the rest of the craft was using. The software reads some measurement it’s getting from it’s thrusters vs. its real position, and panics, because it can tell it’s not where it’s supposed to be. It gets closer and closer to the planet, and all the while it’s still panicking because now it’s not the right speed or at the right place. Eventually, Mars consumes it, like it consumes everything we send it.

All because the unit measure was supposed to be tested at the contractor facility.


To quote Josh Bazell, “In metric, one milliliter of water occupies one cubic centimeter, weighs one gram, and requires one calorie of energy to heat up by one degree centigrade—which is 1 percent of the difference between its freezing point and its boiling point. An amount of hydrogen weighing the same amount has exactly one mole of atoms in it. Whereas in the American system, the answer to ‘How much energy does it take to boil a room-temperature gallon of water?’ is ‘go [CENSORED] yourself’ because you can’t directly relate any of those quantities.”

NASA had been working in a strange hybrid system that made data translation ugly and added steps to sharing valuable data with other nations. As seen in this Mars mission, anything that adds steps also adds room for error. Spaceflight calculations don’t need weird, arbitrary numbers to clutter up the already-complicated systems in place.

Between this mission’s failure and other nations’ requests, NASA announced a plan to switch entirely to metric in 2007. As they say on their website, standardizing units also means that we’ll be easier to cooperate with in the future! And there’s less chance of misunderstandings between co-op projects on other planets. Imagine getting to Mars and realizing the US rover’s 3 miles away instead of 3 kilometers! Or wasting valuable weight on fuel because US gallons are larger than metric liters.

It feels like a miracle that this was the first time an issue like this had ruined a mission!