Worst rollout of a software update ever?

SpaceRef brings us news that the loss of Mars Global Surveyor last year was caused by a bug in a software update. A software update sent to the Mars-orbiting spacecraft in June contained an error, which eventually caused the spacecraft to suffer hardware malfunctions and be rendered inoperable. Talk about a bad software update rollout. I know Microsoft has had some bad patch Tuesdays, but at least they never managed to destroy a hundred-million-dollar spacecraft that had been functioning just fine for a decade.

This story has a lot of personal meaning for me, not only because I’m a programmer currently working on patching some bugs in existing applications, but also because next semester I am going to be working on an independent research project that uses images of Mars taken by Mars Global Surveyor. The research involves tabulating craters on different parts of Mars’ surface to determine how old the surface is (the less time that has elapsed since the surface was resurfaced, the fewer craters). Now luckily there’s a backlog in image analysis and everything I’ll be using was taken a little while ago, but this software bug has effectively killed off many more years of research that would have been conducted.

It really sucks when your spacecraft is taken out, man. Still, I don’t have it as bad as Phil Plait, who spent years investigating supernovae remnants and had a good lead on one that had never been photographed in detail yet, but never followed up on it — and thus missed getting one of Hubble Space Telescope’s most iconic and recognizable images named after him.

The Hour Glass Nebula

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