The most expensive mistakes of space engineers

How one bug in the program and confusion of meters and feet can cost millions of dollars

Reading time 6 minutes

Developers of space projects sometimes make expensive mistakes. Let’s recall the five largest engineering errors of the space era.

Rocket «Mariner 1»
Ракета «Маринер-1»
Rocket «Mariner 1». Ph: NASA

Mariner 1 is the first apparatus of the NASA’s «Mariner» project (automatic interplanetary probes designed to investigate Mars, Venus and Mercury), the launch of which was scheduled on July 22, 1962. The apparatus was supposed to fly to Venus, however, after 293 seconds it deviated from the course, and was destroyed over the Atlantic ocean. According to the official version, the programmer made a mistake while translating the handwritten formula into a computer code: he mistook the index symbol for a regular dash. As a result, the on-Board computer software perceived normal speed jumps as critical, which led to a failure. The accident could not have happened, but the device’s antenna lost contact with the guidance system on the Ground, and the program automatically moved to plan «B». The engineering error cost $18.5 million, which the New York Times called «the most expensive dash in history».

 

Space station «Skylab»
Станция «Скайлэб»
Skylab space station. Ph: NASA

Skylab is the United States orbital station launched in 1873 (the first and only one). It was designed for Earth observation, astrophysical, technological, and biomedical researchs. Before the destruction, it held three space expedition, however, due to increased solar activity, it went off the orbit in 1979. The lowering of the Skylab accelerated, and since the station did not have its own engine, it was not possible to raise it to another orbit. According to the forecasts of the mission control Center, the station was to enter the Earth’s atmosphere on July 11, 1979 and sink for 1300 kilometers in South Cape Town. But the inaccuracy in the calculations by 4% led to the fall of some wreckage of the station in Western Australia. The damage from premature destruction was estimated at $10 million.

Hubble Space Telescope
Hubble Space Telescope. Ph: NASA

Hubble was launched in 1990, but immediately there was a problem in its work: the telescope transmitted a blurred image. After checking, it turned out that edges of the telescope’s main  mirror were too flat, making the telescope «myopic». NASA scientists have developed a program for image processing and, at first glance, the problem was solved. But few months later, other problems were discovered (gyro failures, problems with solar panels and computer malfunctions), and NASA organized three space expeditions to eliminate those defects. One of them brought «glasses» for the telescope — optical correction system COSTAR. Manufacturing and delivering of «glasses» have cost NASA 49.9 million dollars, while since the beginning of telescope’s construction there were spent 6 billion dollars.

Mars Climate Orbiter
Аппарат «Mars Climate Orbiter»
Mars Climate Orbiter. Ph: NASA

Mars Climate Orbiter is an apparatus studying the Martian climate, which was launched by NASA on December 11, 1998. The main objective of the apparatus is to picture the surface of Mars and to study the dynamics of its atmosphere. Nine months later the unit arrives to the planet, turns on braking and begins to move on highly elliptical orbit. According to the calculations of engineers, the device was supposed to change the orbit to circular and to begin research two months later. However, 5 minutes after the start of braking the apparatus passed Mars and never sent any signals. After analyzing the errors, it turned out that the NASA team calculated the parameters of the decisive stage of the flight in the metric system, and the engineers of Lockheed Martin — in the British system (pound-force). As a result, the device crossed the orbit for 53 kilometers lower than required and disintegrated in the atmosphere of Mars; the loss amounted to $193.1 million.

Satellite «NOAA-19»
Спутник «NOAA-19»
Satellite«NOAA-19». Ph: NASA

The accident is not related to the software, but to ordinary sloppiness. In 2003, September 6, during the construction of the satellite, engineers have tried to move it to a horizontal position, but the device collapsed to the floor. The investigation determined that shortly before failure the technician has pulled from the truck 24 screws and has not documented it, but other staff did not check the presence of screws either. As a result, $135 million were spent to repair the satellite.

 

 

Elephants transmit information through the ground

Researchers found out that animals use signals similar to seismic

Reading time 4 minutes

While using instruments intended to detection of earthquakes, Oxford scientists Bet Mortimer and Tarje Nissen-Meyer discovered that various kinds of elephants activities – walking, running, sniffing, grunting – сreate different seismic signals in the ground. According to the research published in Current biology magazine, in several cases these vibrations are distributing through the ground much longer than through the air enabling animals to feel each other even over long distances.

Study’s author Dr.Mortimer

Earlier studies demonstrated that elephants capture ground fluctuations by their body. For instance, elephants were noticed running away to the uplands in the moments preceding tsunami emergence. The elephant feeling a threat began to stomp in order to avert others. The study expands the understanding of how animals can communicate. Beside, it provides new possibilities for researchers and ecologists who would like to observe animals remotely. This method can be fruitful for the save the species. «This information can be used as a strategy of remote monitoring», – Dr.Mortimer said.

An African battalion struggling with poachers

Despite the international affords to prohibit trade of elephant bones tens of thousands of african elephants are proceeding to die because of their tusks every year.

In order to hold the study scientists established devices known as geophones near the place of living of Kenia wild elephants. Like seismographs geophones convert soil fluctuations into measurable electronic signals, yet they are better to use in field work. With the help of these instruments researchers will presumably be able to pursue and defend animals.

Elephants are able to recognize hooves and fluctuations of the herd over several kilometres distance

Due to the fact that elephants live in complicated and spatially divided communities, animals use long-range communication in order to survive. The ground vibrations can be used for warning each other of danger and for partners seeking during very short period of mating. Supposing that elephants not only bring on distinct vibrations in various activities but also are able to perceive these signals from huge distances, scientists are intending to learn how to use these signals.

Vibrations created by elephants can be found and recognized on almost four miles in optimal conditions. However, any noise impact, even automobile noise, sharply decreases the ability to find and recognize these vibrations.

Ilon Musk launches Hyperloop’s first capsule

The super-speed system on magnetic rails starts in Los Angeles on December 10

Reading time 2 minutes

The Boring Company successfully mastered the laying of the first vacuum tunnel for high-speed movement. The founder of the company, Ilon Mask, announced this in his Twitter account. The company has drilled 3.2 km under Los Angeles, the entrepreneur said that the opening of the tunnel will take place on December 10. On the launch day, no one will have to pay the fare, and in the following days the trip will cost $1.

Hyperloop is an ultrafast underground transport system based on pipes and magnetic rails. Autonomous cars with a capacity of 8–16 passengers rush inside the pipe at a speed of about 200 km/h. Initially, the tunnel was conceived solely for the carriage of cars, but now the main goal of the project is to create transport for passengers and cyclists. 

Художественное изображение автономного вагона Loop
Один из эскизных проектов автономного вагона Loop

The tunnel will function like an expressway. Equipped platform will launch vehicles under the ground and deliver to the destination. 

The 16.5 km long vacuum transport system was approved by the authorities of Washington and Baltimore. Boring is also planning to launch a tunnel in Chicago, which will connect the city centre with the airport. At the initial stage, the inventor in his characteristic style admitted that “he has no idea what he is doing.” However, the first project is already at the ready stage. The construction of the Los Angeles-Hawthorne Tunnel, begun in January 2017, has been completed.

Putin in Trump’s hotel – a fake or provocation?

A portrait of Vladimir Putin had been hanging in Trump’s suite for a month, and no one even noticed it

Reading time 4 minutes

A provocative artist, Brian Whiteley, announced that he hung one of his works in a hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, which is located 15 min away from the White House, in a room №435 on the first of August 2018.

In his email to American publishing company Hyperallergic, Whiteley declared that a lot of guests had stayed in a room № 435 after he placed the picture: and it seems like no one was even bothered by this piece of art because there were no complaints. The artist connects this situation with an idea that people are undoubtedly devoted to Trump regardless of the political course he embraces.

Тучи сгущаются над Белым домом / Фотография Брайна Уайтли
Darkening shadows above the White House/ Brian Whiteley’s Photograph

In this painting, we can see Vladimir Putin sitting on a chair. Behind him, there is the White House, above which we can notice darkening shades and storm clouds, resembling the beginning of the Apocalypse. The interesting detail is that the Russian President wears Donald Trump’s red tie that unites them and — according to the artist — captures the essence of a «cult of authoritarianism» created by Trump in the US.

A Whiteley’s close friend — willing to stay anonymous — commented on this situation to the magazine Hyperallergic telling that they booked the room for a night specially to hang the painting. After, they went out drinking and later asked some Trump supporters to come over to their room. When they saw a painting, one of them said: «Putin, fuck yeah», which totally surprised him away.

«Заставил Америку вновь ненавидеть» / Фотография Брайна Уайтли
“Made America Hate Again” / Brian Whiteley’s Photograph

In fact, Brian Whiteley frequently uses his art to express his opinion on Trump’s politics. For instance, in March 2016 he placed a tombstone signed «Trump, Donald J.» with an epitaph: «Made America Hate Again» in Central Park. The work was removed after three hours, but still managed to become an Internet hit.

Now it is impossible to see the painting  because, according to Whiteley, the artist returned to the hotel and took back his masterpiece after a month. And only then he was noticed by security and he got escorted from the hotel as quickly as possible.

However, the hotel’s administration claims the whole story to be fabricated and none of these happened for real.

Портрет Путина покидает отель Трампа / Фотография Брайна Уайтли
The portrait of Putin leaves the Trump’s suite/ Brian Whiteley’s Photography

It is difficult to say if the painting of Vladimir Putin truly had been placed in Donald Trump’s suite or if it is really nothing more than just a good PR method, but anyways it cause a wide resonance in society and it is going to be discussed for a while.