Blinded by the Light



at the end of the article they talk about redundancy being the key to success on such space missions.

i wouldn’t exactly call a computer that reboots itself on a multi-bit error redundant. If you want redundancy, have two computers perform the same operations and if one detects a multi bit error, reboot it while the other one takes over all spacecraft operations.

if you need even more redundancy, use three computers - and reboot the one that doesn’t agree. And hopefully when it comes back up it will resynchronize with the others and agree again. If not, you may have to shut it down permanently.

Revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night.


@cbuchner1 Thanks for reading the article! You are correct about reduancy. That was in reference to the case of Curiosity, but I can see how that was confusing. MESSENGER does have redundancy (two main computers and two fault protection computers with two code images on each). Our fault protection folks have a method for how we switch between the various images and computers. In this case, it was a switch between images since that was considered less burdensome than switching processors. We have had a case or two where we had to switch processors.


Great stuff! Well expresses the excitement of science & engineering. (Not being sarcastic, I’m an EE and I’ve seen some exciting roller-coaster rides on projects, though none as exciting as hurling through space a hundred million miles from home…)

@jim_kirk Thanks Jim! I agree, the roller coaster it was makes science & engineering fun. Sometimes only in retrospect, but still fun. :smile:

Thank you for this article. I have discovered I really enjoy learning about all the planning that goes into these devices both before and after they are launched.

@tntjarks You may have already read these but there are some good books out there that do a nice job of documenting these types of missions. Some off-hand are: “Red Rover” by Roger Wiens, “From Jars to Stars” by Todd Neff, “Ambassadors from Earth” by Jay Gallentine, Journey Beyond Selene by Jeffery Kluger, “Martian Summer” by Andrew Kessler, and “Roving Mars” by Steve Squyres. I found Squyres’s book particularly inspirational not only because of the MER experience, but also his story of how he messed up once (don’t want to give it away :)) After reading that, I felt better about some of my own screw ups. After all, if even Steve Squyres can mess up, I can’t be too hard on myself!


You work on redundant systems and graceful degradation, multiple lines of defence to deal with SEUs and worse… but it’s still nerve-wracking. In space no-one can press CTRL-ALT-DEL.
Glad that bit worked. Congrats to the team.

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What with recent advances in brain modelling, genetic engineering, monkeys controlling virtual arms with their thoughts and the like; is it too much to hope to see Astrochicken inside another couple of generations?

I don’t think we need to hurry up the chances of uploading the neural network of a lobster yet. quietly hides Accelerando under his pillow

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@Zoe_Ellen_Brain Thanks! Regarding CTRL-ALT-DEL, it reminds me of a conference paper my colleagues and I wrote a few years ago called “Blue Screen in Space: Recommendations for Preventing and Coping with Software Anomalies.” (Sad to say, I suspect the title was the highlight for most readers. :wink: )

Good article. Engaging and interesting. I’m not one of the BBers that follows space missions closely or at all, I suppose I found the human element of this article more engaging.

Since you’re in this thread and you are in a position to gauge the feasibility of my question, I’ll lay it on you. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, I read a few things that suggested we could start mining the asteroid belt. Huge chunks of platinum and etc just drifting around. Granted one of these accounts involved nanobots using the raw materials on the asteroid to construct the engine for the return flight. That’s obviously not happening anytime soon, but it sounds like the logistics of getting there are in place.

From what you wrote, it doesn’t sound like y’all have any means for MESSENGER to make a return trip, is that correct? Bottom line, is it realistic to think that there will be missions in our lifetime that pay for themselves or even profit by their ability to send back commodities? Or perhaps data that can be commodified? Or is that already happening? I’m not saying these concerns necessarily outweigh the scientific value of discovery missions, I’m just curious if this will be an actual thing or just pie in the sky.

To you and your team: “Nice work!”:beers:

@noahdjango The human element is the part I tried to bring out more since stress, adversity, and teamwork is common across many disciplines. Since I hadn’t written anything like this before, I’m not sure whether the human part was under or overplayed so thanks for the feedback.

MESSENGER won’t be coming back, unfortunately. There have been other missions that have returned samples from space including Stardust, Genesis, and Hayabusa (now there’s a story that is absolutely incredible about how the Japanese team managed to get the spacecraft back home!) OSIRIS-REx is going to return asteroid samples. However, the missions cost way to much to make money off the small samples (my opinion).

The closest to what you are describing now are companies like Planetary Resources. (This is from memory, so I hope I don’t mess up the details too much). That company is planning a multi-stage effort to mine asteroids. Step one is a recon patrol from Earth orbit, step two is to visit, and step three is to mine. They are working now on a spacecraft called the Arkyd-100 which is a nifty space telescope where people will be able to buy viewing time. That will help fund their future efforts.

Will this all work in our lifetime? I hope so. The biggest problem is that everything seems to end up taking longer when it comes to space exploration than predicted. That seems to apply whether it’s a government funded program or commercial. I do believe it will happen some day, it’s the timeline that I find murky.

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