1. Headline
  1. Headline
Image: Mars Global Surveyor
An artist's conception shows Mars Global Surveyor orbiting over the Red Planet's shield volcanoes. Contact with the space probe was lost last November, and a review board says the stage was set for the failure months earlier.
updated 4/13/2007 9:05:55 PM ET 2007-04-14T01:05:55

Human error triggered a cascade of events that caused the battery to fail on the Mars Global Surveyor last year, according to a preliminary report released Friday.

An internal NASA board determined that power loss likely doomed the spacecraft after almost a decade of meticulously mapping the Red Planet.

But the problems can be traced to September 2005 when a routine update to onboard computers caused inconsistencies in the spacecraft’s memory. Engineers trying to fix the problem sent incorrect software commands then didn’t catch the mistakes because the existing procedures to do so were inadequate.

“Had these procedures been more rigorous ... then perhaps this wouldn’t have happened,” said board chair Dolly Perkins of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Scientists lost contact last November with the $154 million Global Surveyor. Launched in 1996, it was the oldest of six different active probes on the Martian surface or circling the planet.

Several attempts to locate the spacecraft were unsuccessful, and the mission was declared ended in January.

Redundancy vs. inconsistencies
Global Surveyor was built with redundant control systems to guard against failure. However, the board found inconsistencies in the memories of the spacecraft’s two onboard computers because the updates were done at different times.

Six months before Global Surveyor fell silent, engineers tried to fix the problem but mistakenly uploaded faulty software, disabling its solar panels.

A final command in November telling the spacecraft to adjust its solar panels caused it to point itself toward the sun. In turn, the battery overheated and the spacecraft was lost within 12 hours.

Slideshow: A changing Mars The team that sent up the commands included engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Lockheed Martin Corp., said Fuk Li, Mars program manager at JPL.

JPL managed the Global Surveyor mission and Lockheed built the spacecraft.

  1. More from TODAY.com
    1. Why this tampon-themed video game is what the world needs now

      Is the world ready for a video game about menstruation? Two high-school girls think so.

    2. Prince Harry turns 30! 13 reasons to love the redheaded royal
    3. Watch this bear take a refreshing swim in a California pool
    4. Fall's 10 most flattering celebrity hairstyles
    5. 'Surge' soda surges back, but here are 6 other retro treats we pine for

Lockheed employees noticed the error and contacted their superiors, the report said.

Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, said the space agency will double-check the remaining Mars spacecraft to ensure the error won’t happen again.

The Global Surveyor beamed back 240,000 pictures, including the first detailed views of swirling dust devils and gullies.

Shortly before it failed, it also found stunning evidence that liquid water recently coursed through Mars. The discovery, which still needs to be confirmed, raises the possibility that the planet may have an environment conducive to primitive life.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

More on TODAY.com

  1. Jemal Countess / Getty Images

    NFL creates team of women to combat domestic violence

    9/15/2014 4:42:20 PM +00:00 2014-09-15T16:42:20
  1. Maurizio Degl'innocenti / EPA

    Amal Alamuddin's style: 8 fashion lessons from Clooney's fiancée

    9/15/2014 3:46:14 PM +00:00 2014-09-15T15:46:14
  1. NBC Los Angeles

    Watch this bear take a refreshing swim in a California pool

    9/15/2014 9:09:13 PM +00:00 2014-09-15T21:09:13
  1. Johnny Eggitt / AFP/Getty Images

    Royal siblings: What's the ideal age gap between children?

    9/15/2014 3:47:29 PM +00:00 2014-09-15T15:47:29
  1. Paris Hilton buys $13,000 Pomeranian puppy

    9/15/2014 5:43:31 PM +00:00 2014-09-15T17:43:31