Mars Surveyor May Have Fallen to Software Issue

NASA is investigating the possibility that a software glitch caused the recent demise of the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. It had been orbiting Mars for nearly a decade, sending back fantastic pictures. It mysteriously went silent in November.

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NASA is looking into the possibility that computer programmers may have mistakenly killed one of its most dependable spacecraft. The Mars Global Surveyor had surveyed - had survived the hazards of space for nearly a decade, orbiting Mars and sending back fantastic pictures.

As NPR's David Kestenbaum reports, it mysteriously went silent back in November.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: This was an old spacecraft, designed for two years, going on 10 - well beyond its warranty. So when it stopped responding, it was possible some wire had broken or its brain had become scrambled. That may not be far from the truth, as investigators found when they started going through the logs of the last commands sent to the spacecraft. Doug McCuistion is Mars program director for NASA.

Mr. DOUG MCCUISTION (Mars Program Director, NASA): There were some incorrect software uploads made. Actually, the software uploads were okay, they were loaded to the wrong locations.

KESTENBAUM: Sent to the wrong place in the computer's memory.

Mr. MCCUISTION: That could've caused the computer, essentially, to be confused and decide it needed to go to a safe mode where it points its solar rays at the sun.

KESTENBAUM: That would be good, except, the thinking is it didn't do it quite right. It may have pointed a cooling radiator toward the sun, causing a critical battery to fail. McCuistion says commands are usually triple checked before being sent up to the spacecraft, so he doesn't know how the mistake was made. And he says it's unclear yet if this software problem really killed the spacecraft. NASA shared the news with the community at large this week.

Mr. MCCUISTION: People were unhappy. They were disappointed to hear that could be a possibility, but they were no more disappointed than the lost itself back in November. That was really the big blow, is we really expected to get a lot more science out of this spacecraft.

KESTENBAUM: Its greatest discovery was possibly its last, he says. Before and after images showing would appear to be gullies on the surface, formed by a liquid within the past five years.

Mr. MCCUISTION: It has a strong possibility of indicating there may be, actually, life, past or present, on Mars, if those water processes are still going on.

KESTENBAUM: Well, maybe the Martians were worried about being discovered and so they shot down your a spacecraft?

Mr. MCCUISTION: Well, then I would say we found life on another planet, if they can do that.

KESTENBAUM: McCuistion is pretty sure we've heard the last from the Mars Global Surveyor. Other spacecraft have looked for it in orbit, but found only empty space.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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