NASA delays satellite launch after finding bugs in software

NASA has discovered a software performance problem that has delayed for at least eight months the launch of a satellite central to an agency program for collecting and analysing the interdependence of Earth's ecosystems. The satellite and the Flight Operations Segment (FOS) software running it are part of the Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS), a core component of the multibillion-dollar Earth Science Enterprise, formerly called Mission to Planet Earth

NASA has discovered a software performance problem that has delayed for at least eight months the launch of a satellite that is central to an agency program for collecting and analysing the interdependence of Earth's ecosystems.

The satellite and the Flight Operations Segment (FOS) software running it are part of the Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS), a core component of the multibillion-dollar Earth Science Enterprise, formerly called Mission to Planet Earth.

The Earth Science Enterprise program is a 15-year, international research effort to study Earth's land, oceans, atmosphere and ice to improve weather forecasts, management of agriculture, forests and the fishing industry, local land planning and the ability to predict how the climate will change in the future. As part of the overall program, the FOS software was supposed to be responsible for the command and control of the Earth Observing Spacecraft AM-1, a satellite scheduled for launch in June.

The FOS software, in which NASA has invested $US27.5 million to date, was also designed to monitor the health of the satellite and its on-board instruments, plan and schedule instrument operations and perform analysis of spacecraft trends and anomalies. But when Lockheed Martin, which was under contract to Raytheon Information Systems, delivered the final version of FOS to NASA March 31, NASA officials discovered the software had several problems, including unacceptable response time in developing satellite schedules, poor performance in analysing the satellite's status and trends from telemetry data, and improper implementation of a control language used by the flight team to automate operations, said John Dalton, NASA's deputy project manager of EOSDIS.

"The [FOS software] is essential to the success of the mission," Dalton said. "It is the control of the spacecraft. Basically, the problems that we're seeing are in the performance or in the validation function of the code. This was not some kind of a very subtle bug that [would be] discovered when the spacecraft was in orbit." A Lockheed Martin spokeswoman said, "We're aware of NASA's concerns, and we're certainly working with all the parties involved to clear up the issue." She declined to provide any further details. Raytheon's program manager for the project declined to comment.

Representative F. James Sesenbrenner Jr. (Republican-Wisconsin) said of the software problems, "Continued problems in the Earth Science program vindicate [the Committee on Science's] calls to decentralise the program and make greater use of commercial off-the-shelf capabilities."

Although NASA teams still are determining how the problems will affect the overall mission, Dalton said the largest fallout has been delaying the satellite launch from June 30 until at least the end of the year. The impact on the cost of the project has not yet been determined, he said. NASA scientists will analyze several options for fixing the software, including fixing the software bugs with commercially available software.

When all the satellites are deployed, EOSDIS will process more than 1 trillion bytes of information per day. Information such as maps of sea surface temperatures, snow cover and vegetation will be available to scientists all over the world.

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