Built in the mid to late 90’s, the Mars Climate Orbiter was fitted with the most advanced technology of its time, and it featured dual redundant systems and triple redundant software copies! What could possibly go wrong?
It launched in December 1998 - everything was going according to plan. By September 1999, it approached Mars and attempted to go into orbit. Then - poof - it went out of radio contact! Two days later, it was officially declared "lost". The probe ventured too close to Mars, plummeted into its atmosphere, and disintegrated.
So how did the probe miss its target? A software error. One piece of code dealt with Newtons, while the other assumed Pounds, resulting in a ~90 km difference in predicted and actual altitude.
What a tragedy to have spent $193.1 million on spacecraft development, $91.7 million on the launch and $42.8 million on operations only to have the spacecraft plummet into the Martian atmosphere because two programmers - each of whom wrote great code –didn’t discuss the units.
It goes to show that Rocket Science is hard, but communication can be harder. Even the best scientist or engineer couldn't prevent this from happening without having visibility into the entire development process. The goal is to learn from the mistake by instilling a culture of quality, communication, and collaboration.
Today, there are better tools and processes to reduce the risk of Mars Climate Orbiter-esque failures. Among these processes is continuous verification of requirements. A good requirements management tool is the foundation of good requirements and continuous engineering practices. If you're still using spreadsheets or flat documents, you're missing out on the benefits of requirement managements software.
Consider IBM Rational DOORS Next Generation, an industry-proven solution, used successfully by companies including MBDA Missile Systems and Hughes Telematics. And DOORS integrates with your existing processes, including automated testing, so your team can work together, better, and communicate freely to deliver high quality products.
For more information about the Mars Climate Orbiter, check out their official web page: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msp98/orbiter/
We share 99% of our DNA with chimps, yet we manage to build technology that’s not constantly blowing up. But since we are just human, and humans make mistakes, $#@! happens. The best we can do is to learn from the mistakes of the past. And that’s what this series is all about! Stay tuned to The Invisible Thread for more on this topic.
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