Talk:Mars Climate Orbiter

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The metric flaw[edit]

The loss of the MCO has become a case study frequently cited in a software engineering context, so I thought it worthwhile to update the article to correct some common misunderstandings. I've cited my references. My impression from the presentations I've heard is that it was a single *constant* which was computed incorrectly by an engineer (who forgot to include the necessary conversion factor) -- which, for the case studies, means that compiler technology to automatically do unit checking or inference likely wouldn't have helped here. It was just a bad "magic number" that was input. However, the references I can find refer to an "equation" not just a bad constant, so that is the language I have used in my update. C. Scott Ananian 23:34, 17 November 2005 (UTC)

More details (since this was reverted yesterday, presumably before my comments here were read): See page 7 of the cited AAS paper. There is a JPL-internal memo (JPL D-18441, November 1999) that presumably has the precise details, but I don't have access to it. C. Scott Ananian 15:43, 18 November 2005 (UTC)

In your last edit summary, you said "revert. This is a direct quote, from the single reference I added. (pg 7) See discussion page."
  • You do know how to indicate a direct quote, don't you? You know, those little squiggly things called quotation marks—which I just used to enclose your edit summary. See also Wikipedia:Manual of Style#Quotation marks.
  • Of course, not only do I not see any of those quotation marks in this section of the article, I also do not see any direct quote from the cited page. At least nothing longer than a word or two.
The biggest problem in your edits is the statement "The conversion factor from pound-seconds to newton-seconds was buried in the original equation and not immediately identifiable, and so it was not included in the updated equation."
  • This gives the misleading impression that a conversion factor was there in the MCO software, but just didn't get used. It wasn't, however. All there was in the MCO software was a formula which would give results consistent with its input. It probably would have worked equally well for gravitational fps units an both input and output, or for SI units as both input and output.
  • The conversion factor was only built into the formula used in different software, the software used on the Mars Global Surveyor, which was used as a pattern for the MCO software. It wasn't ever in the MCO software.
This article never was written as if it were discussing some "constant"; rather, it discussed the output of the calculations using the formula. A variable, whose value depends on the input. GIGO, etc. Gene Nygaard 18:10, 18 November 2005 (UTC)

Your response seems needlessly personal. Here is the relevant paragraph from the reference I have been citing (Euler, E.E., Jolly, S.D., and Curtis, H.H. "The Failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander: A Perspective from the People Involved." Proceedings of Guidance and Control 2001, American Astronautical Society, paper AAS 01-074, 2001, page 7):

"The equations used to make the I-bit calculation are vendor supplied and in English units (in the case of this vendor). Although starting from MGS-heritage software, the coded MGS thruster equation had to be changed because of the different size RCS thruster that MCO employed (same vendor). As luck would have it, the 4.45 conversion factor, although correctly included in the MGS equation by the previous development team, was not immediately identifiable by inspection (being buried in the equation) or commented in the code in an obvious way that the MCO team recognized it. Thus, although the SIS required SI units, the new thruster equation was inserted in place of the MGS equation - without the conversion factor."

I do not believe that the "impression" I gave is misleading: according to this primary source, the conversion factor was in the original MGS equation, but not in the replacement equation. I don't really think a direct quotation of this paragraph is necessary in the article, but I'll be happy to include it if you feel this is appropriate. In fact, misunderstanding of the root flaw here is very wide-spread (google will turn up lots of sloppy quotes of the investigation board's simplified explanation), and my edits were specifically made to ensure that Wikipedia did not repeat the error. C. Scott Ananian 16:36, 21 November 2005 (UTC)

What error? There was no conversion factor in the MCO software. It really is that simple. Your source says so too. Don't be throwing out some alphabet soup about soem MGS software which wasn't used on the MCO. The Mars Global Surveyor made it to Mars and accomplished its mission five years ago, and is now on an extended mission, using that software which did include the conversion factor. Gene Nygaard 00:46, 22 November 2005 (UTC)

I think we agree, then. As you say, there is no conversion factor in the MCO software. As you also say, there was a conversion factor in the MGS software. This particular piece of MCO and MGS software ("SM_FORCES") is identical on both craft except for the equation for the RCS thrusters (the MSOP readiness review, page 65 shows that SM_FORCES is a minor modification of MGS software). According to Euler et al, page 7, the conversion factor was "buried in the equation" and thus not "immediately identifiable", and it was not "commented in the code in an obvious way". The sentence from the article we seem to be discussing is:

The conversion factor from pound-seconds to newton-seconds was buried in the original equation and not immediately identifiable, and so it was not included in the updated equation.

It seems that we agree that, as this sentence states, the conversion factor "was not included in the updated equation". C. Scott Ananian 22:44, 28 November 2005 (UTC)

But it is still badly worded, confusing and misleading, and wrong. When I have mor time I'll try to figure it out. The "velocity change" stuff appears to me to be misplaced and part of the confusion; that's just another exacerbating factor, isn't it? Not a cause of the problem, but something that might have detected the existence of the problem--is that right? If it is right or not, the transitions and distinctions need to be made clearer. Gene Nygaard 01:19, 29 November 2005 (UTC)

As i have it the original program would have adjusted the thrust, the explorer may use a program on converting factors now, that they couldn't find the conversion factor then doesn't mean they found it now, in the initial configuration it may have been an 'exacerbating' factor and "alphabet-soupe" should remain a reasonable argument.. in this case i think it is. 00:12, 15 March 2007 (UTC)

I was wondering about the statement : "The metric mixup which destroyed the craft was caused by a software error back on Earth.". It seems to me that the software did what it was told to do. I'm more inclined to call it "a programming error". —Preceding unsigned comment added by Apodam (talkcontribs) 08:59, 17 December 2008 (UTC)


What was the cost of the mission?-- 21:42, 9 March 2007 (UTC)

Sorry for deleting this post earlier. Anyway I've added a section answering this. Dan Gluck 18:29, 11 October 2007 (UTC)
Did Lockheed Martin pay for it, since they apparently were responsible for the error that made the mission fail? -- (talk) 21:14, 17 January 2009 (UTC)

English Imperial Units[edit]

Hello Gene,

I sort of thought my change would provoke a response from someone!

There are a few good reasons why it should be left as "Imperial" and that "English" should be dispensed with.

  1. If you click on English units you will be redirected to Imperial units. This in itself indicates that the preferred term is Imperial.
  2. While English Units may be a common term in the US, it is actually uncommon internationally. Here in Australia it is referred to as Imperial.
  3. The term also denotes that England still uses such units of measurement. This is partly true but the nation is pretty much Metrified.

I have reverted the article to say Imperial, but I will leave it up to you to make the final change back to English if you so desire, and if you do not think my reasoning is sound. One Salient Oversight 23:10, 17 Feb 2005 (UTC)

Here are my comments
  1. The current Imperial units page is a mess--sometimes distinguishing those used in the British empire--after the United States opted out--and sometimes including the United States.
  2. In none of the cases where there is a difference between British English and U.S. English or either of them and Australian English or Canadian English or whatever is the title of a Wikipedia article to be taken as an indication of any "preferred term".
  3. There is another U.S. customary units article.
  4. What we need is one English units article that is more comprehensive, with the existing ones more limited.
  5. Like I pointed out in my edit, nobody uses Roman units any more, but they are still Roman units. In other words, these designations are based on history and derivation--not on current usage.
  6. Unlike the United Kingdom, it is legal to sell draft beer by the liter in the United States. Note also that we use the real he-man sized liters, which only take 3.8 to make a gallon, rather than those dinky little litres the British as well as you in Oz use, which take 4.5 to make a gallon. ;-)
  7. Most of the units, such as the avoirdupois pound of mass invented in 1303, are actually pre-imperial. (Or post-imperial, in reference to the Roman empire from which these units derived.) However, even in common usage outside the United States, "imperial" is most often used only for those units which remained in use in the British empire after the Weights and Measures Act of 1924 (in other words, not including Queen Anne's wine gallon and the Winchester bushel, for example).
  8. Pound-force seconds, OTOH, are probably best classified as post-imperial. There were never used in the days of the British empire. (Pounds force were never well defined units before the 20th century, and these rocketry units of impulse only came along well into the century.)
  9. This article is about usage in the United States--and in the United States, "imperial" is used only to distinguish those volume units introduced in 1924 (the best the Brits could come up with for a decimal system, even 30 years after the metric system, was to take a unit that had been the volume of 8 pounds of whatever and make it the volume of 10 pounds of water). Gene Nygaard 04:06, 18 Feb 2005 (UTC)

Well I'm from the UK and I didn't understand what english units were until reading this discussion page, also at the top of the article it cites imperial measurements and later on its then referred to as english. Can someone make their mind up once and for all please. 21:06, 9 January 2007 (UTC)

The article was using both imperial and english units, in the interests of consistency i've changed the english reference to be imperial. Looking at the wikipedia article on "english units" refers to it as being a mostly american term. Seeing as both terms are valid as they contain the "pound" unit of measurement (which was the one incorrectly converted) and given that wikipedia is a global entity, it makes sense to me that imperial units should be used as it is known both inside and outside of the USA. I'm canadian and I'd never heard the term "english unit" until reading this article. Shad0w 23:18, 9 January 2007 (UTC)

Most US citizens, as opposed to Canadians, would not even know what was meant by the term "imperial units". Wikipedia says, correctly, "Imperial units are not used in the United States. The customary units in use there are historically derived from units which were in use in England at the time of settlement. The measurements of most of these units in England itself were subsequently changed." The few who do understand the term may well take offense at the idea, as I do, that they owe their customary units to the British empire, when they are simply descended from the customary English units at the time of settlement, hence the US tendency to refer to US customary units as also being "English" units, in the same sense that they refer to their language as "English", although it too differs from British and other "imperial" varieties of English. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 01:40, 10 May 2008 (UTC)

This article should absolutely not say "Imperial Units." The United States does not, and has never, used Imperial Units. The units in use in the US are "US customary units." Saying "Imperial Units" is simply wrong. Even the wiki page for US customary units notes that they are similar but not identical. I have changed the article accordingly. Somerandomguy321 (talk) 00:46, 25 August 2010 (UTC)

This is entirely correct. The term "English units" is a vague and non-technical way of referring to US customary units or Imperial units, or both. US customary units and Imperial units are not necessarily the same. It's unlikely than an American company working with NASA would have been using the Imperial system of measures. They were almost certainly using the US customary system. And that's what the article should reflect, except for verbatim quotes where a reliable source used bad terminology (which is itself of interest, as further indication of ongoing confusion and likely future mishaps). It's unfortunate that the wrong units were used, and it is also unfortunate that even the technical professionals tasked with investigating the screw-up couldn't get the terminology right. But that's no excuse for Wikipedia to get it wrong. The ground-based calculations were in US customary units, and except for quoting sources, the article should not refer to the units as either Imperial (incorrect), or English (vague). — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 18:41, 17 May 2012 (UTC)

The block quotation from the MCO Mishap Investigation Board contains misquotes: In two places "Imperial units" should be "English units", "newton-seconds" should be "Newton-seconds", and "newtons" should be "Newtons". The paragraph appears on page 16 of the MCO Report. Quotes must be exact in wording, spelling, and capitalization. Among Americans, like the ones who wrote this report, "English units" is understood as short for "U.S. customary units". No American engineer would call them "Imperial units" because Imperial units are a system that uses the same names but some of the units are just different enough to screw you over if you confuse the two. So if you think leaving "English units" is too confusing, either put [U.S. customary units] with square brackets to indicate that you're changing the quote or eliminate the quote and paraphrase. Kktkktkkt (talk) 06:06, 22 September 2012 (UTC)

Would have been?[edit]

The second paragraph of the lead section says "The spacecraft would have been destroyed by atmospheric stresses and friction at this low altitude." It would have been destroyed? Don't we mean it was destroyed? --Angr (t·c) 15:40, 20 December 2005 (UTC)


Shouldn't it be more along the lines of "The spacecraft would most likely have been destroyed by atmospheric stresses and friction at this low altitude." as it is an unobserved event. It is possible that the spacecraft bounced off the atmosphere and was not "destroyed" but I guess that is really nitpicking and that the craft was rendered useless by the fault.


This infamous engineering fault was perpetrated by Lockheed Martin. What were the repercussions of this error for LM? Did they have to compensate NASA for the damages in any way? —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 22:53, 26 July 2008 (UTC)

All we know is that the managers at NASA were a bunch of jerks for ignoring the problem!! :( :( :( — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 03:33, 29 August 2017 (UTC)

Metric or imperial???[edit]

All the time, I've always thought that NASA only uses metric units since that time... As evidence from there website, when imperial measure are present, they are only shown as secondary in paranthesis...

So if NASA is really using metric now, there's a mistake in the article, wich state that NASA sitck with imperial.

Just in case there was a mistake in the article!

--Jerem © 2002-2006 (talk) 20:38, 27 May 2009 (UTC)

I'll second that. I've heard that NASA has actually switched to using metric on new projects since then. Someone should really verify this. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 12:16, 9 June 2009 (UTC)

Currently, this article claims that NASA switched back to Imperial unist. I think that this statement is incorrect. The NASA webpage clearly says that (at least for future moon-missions), NASA wants to use exclusively metric units. The only source currently given in the article to support the claim that NASA switched back to Imperial units is which as far as I understand it only referes to the construction of new buildings of the NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory but not to NASA as a whole, and especially it seems not to refer to the use of Imperial umits for space missions.--Stacalusa (talk) 17:52, 18 June 2009 (UTC)

Since nobody objected, I deleted the (unsourced) claim that NASA switched back to imperial units for its missions.--Stacalusa (talk) 05:11, 28 June 2009 (UTC)

[1] There you go, the source. Nicholas.tan (talk) 04:40, 6 October 2009 (UTC)

Nasa generally uses the metric system for new projects. So the article is incorrect. [2]Udo Held (talk) 23:17, 9 October 2009 (UTC)

Lockheed Martin[edit]

Can someone make it relevant to this article or at least MENTION it? The only thing about Lockheed Martin on the page is under the categories! —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 19:32, 18 August 2010 (UTC)

Improperly Low Altitude[edit]

I suggest we changed the statement to "They fucked up and it blew up in their faces". (talk) 02:30, 2 February 2012 (UTC)

What size font do you suggest we use? — Preceding unsigned comment added by Bagmouse7 (talkcontribs) 05:09, 19 July 2012 (UTC)

The spacecraft's velocity[edit]

It is claimed that: "The complete burn sequence lasted 42 minutes bringing the spacecraft into a Hohmann transfer orbit, with a final velocity of 5.5 km/s relative to Mars, and sending the probe into a 669 million kilometer trajectory." A fast calculation leads to the result that the spacecraft should have travel for more than 100 million seconds which are about 3 years. Yet, it arrived to Mars after less then a year. How can that be? (talk) 13:49, 31 July 2012 (UTC)

Earth and Mars are orbiting the Sun. The "669 million kilometer trajectory" is the distance from Earth to Mars plus that all three bodies (Earth, MCO, and Mars) swung part way around the Sun in the 285.56 days that it took the MCO to coast from Earth to Mars.
The article reports the launch as 1998-12-11 18:45:51 and the initial burn lasted 42 minutes. That means the beginning of the coast phase to Mars was at 1998-12-11 19:27:51. The end of the coast phase was at 1999-09-23 09:00:46 when the MCO did the main engine burn to slow it down to the correct velocity to start orbiting Mars. Thus, the coast phase lasted 285.56 days.
Let's assume the "669 million kilometer trajectory" is only the coast phase. That works out to an average flight speed of 27.1149 km/second to travel 669 million km in 285.56 days.
The statement "a final velocity of 5.5 km/s relative to Mars" was the speed at the start of the coast phase. Some of the resultant true velocity within the Solar System is that the MCO approached Mars from Earth and the rest would be that Mars' average orbital speed is 24.077 km/s. Both Earth's and the Sun's gravity would slow the MCO down from the initial 5.5 km/s as it coasted and towards the end of the coast the MCO would accelerate as it came within reach of Mars' gravity.
The average orbital speed of Earth around the Sun is 29.78 km/s. We don't know the the angle or direction of the launch off Cape Canaveral and so don't know the actual speed of the MCO at the start of the coast phase other than it was "5.5 km/s relative to Mars."
Overall, the numbers in the article are reasonable and consistent. To improve the article we'd need to find reliable sources that better explain the mission. For example, I had to make an assumption above that "669 million kilometer trajectory" applied only to the coast phase. I suspect we are close as the MCO went from launch to coast in 42 minutes and the burn that ended the coast lasted 16 minutes. The initial orbits around Mars were not circular for some missions. It took many orbits and small adjustments to achieve the final circular orbit. I assume the MCO would have done the same and suspect "669 million kilometer trajectory" includes these orbits. --Marc Kupper|talk 17:01, 20 May 2013 (UTC)

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