Space

Software problem "pauses" LightSail mission

Software problem "pauses" Ligh...
The LightSail satellite is locked up due to a software glitch
The LightSail satellite is locked up due to a software glitch
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Atlas V launcher carrying the LightSail satellite
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Atlas V launcher carrying the LightSail satellite
The LightSail satellite is locked up due to a software glitch
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The LightSail satellite is locked up due to a software glitch

The Planetary Society says that its LightSail solar sail mission has been "paused" due to a software glitch, which has frozen the onboard computer in a fashion all too familiar to terrestrial technology users. Launched on May 20, the satellite, which is about the size of a loaf of bread, ceased transmitting at 5:31 EDT (21:31 GMT) on May 22 due to what engineers believe is a design flaw in the avionics software.

The LightSail CubeSat reportedly operated as planned after its launch atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as a piggyback payload along with the US Air Force's X-37B unmanned spaceplane. As it passed over ground stations operated by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Georgia Tech, its power and temperature levels indicated nominal operations as data packets were transmitted back to Earth every 15 seconds.

The Society says that the problem was that every time LightSail transmitted a packet, it stored a copy in a datafile file called beacon.csv. This continued until the file reached 32 megabytes and crashed the system. This was a shortcoming that was already known to the manufacturer of the avionics board and the Society had planned to transmit a fix, but the computer froze before this could be carried out.

Atlas V launcher carrying the LightSail satellite
Atlas V launcher carrying the LightSail satellite

The flight team compares the problem to that of an ordinary Earthside computer that fails to respond and needs to be restarted. As anyone who has used a computer for any length of time knows, simply giving the machine an order to reboot won't work if the computer isn't responding, which means manually turning it off and on. This appears to be the case with the LightSail, which has failed to respond to restart commands. The LightSail has a power switch installed, but that isn't of much use.

"There’s nobody in outer space to push that reset button," says Planetary CEO Bill Nye.

The team is now hoping that either the satellite will respond to repeated commands that are being sent automatically, or the electronics will be struck by cosmic rays – an event that often causes satellites to reboot themselves.

The LightSail was built by the nonprofit Planetary Society as a technology demonstrator for a non-rocket propulsion system that uses a Mylar sail to turn the light of the Sun into thrust in a similar way to a sail boat catching the wind. The Society says that if it does manage to reboot the spacecraft, it will be ordered to deploy its solar sails as soon as possible to begin the test program and move it to a higher orbit. Failing this, the satellite will be able to continue in orbit for another six months.

Source: The Planetary Society

5 comments
Ranscapture
Are they stupid? What a waste of everything to be worthless as to not patch such a big. I hate our new software model: "Build it as fast as possible and then patch it every week." It wasn't more than 10 years ago that we still made 4gb games that you could play through for 100 hours and it would never crash. If space people want to make software, they need to hire big big single player or mmo game developers because those products HAVE to be stable. I can't say stupid enough times for these kind of programmers.
nicho
So they launched it _knowing_ it had a software flaw and .. What ? Thought it would just be ok ?
Daydreamer
I guess that's what the X-37B was for - as backup in case of a problem - to recover the Light Sail and bring it safely back to earth.
Charles S Roscoe
Typical, garbage in, garbage out.
christopher
LOL - I had that the same exact problem on my weather station transmitter. Unfortunately, rebooting doesn't help. When the file system is full, you've got to get in there and clean out some room, which you cannot do by uploading anything new to do that, because there's no room... Game over. This is good learning - recovery/backup systems need to be more robust than this, which this expensive slap-in-the-face has taught them now.