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  • Writer's pictureBrian McColgan

Criticality of clear communication re: CPS design, and development.

Updated: Apr 1, 2022

How the incorrect use, omission, co-opting of key technical related terminology can negatively impact organizations developing complex cyber-physical products/solutions.


Picture of planet MARS
Planet MARS

In 1998, NASA was preparing to launch the MARS Climate Orbiter probe to help the worlds scientists better understand aspects of this strange planet, including:

  • determining the distribution of water on planet MARS

  • monitor MARS daily weather and atmospheric conditions, etc.

The MARS Orbiter launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station aboard a Delta II 7425 launch vehicle in December 1998, and after a successful 42 minute flight, entered space-orbit. The probe began it's march toward planet MARS.


September 1999: after travelling 400+ million miles through space, NASA's MARS Climate Orbiter reached its intended destination - planet MARS. As part of it's mission, the Orbiter undertook an orbital insertion maneuver to bring the probe closer to the planets surface. Shortly after this maneuver began, NASA lost communication with the probe. The MARS Climate Orbiter unfortunately was never heard from again. NASA had lost a $193 million (USD) space probe, along with the opportunity to gather critical scientific data on this far-off planet.


NASA Orbiter - complex cyber-physical product
NASA's MARS Climate Orbiter - Artist rendering, courtesy: NASA/JPL/Corby Waste, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

How did this happen!?

Investigations by NASA into the mishap, revealed software on the Orbiter likely miscalculated the orbital insertion altitude. Investigators theorized the Orbiter was either destroyed in MARS atmosphere OR re-entered orbit around the sun – heliocentric orbit.

The software issue was determined a miscommunication in units of measurement (UoM) of two (2) key solution elements operating on behalf of the Orbiter. Element-A reported measures based on US/standard UoM. Element-B which performed the Orbiter altitude calculations, utilized reports from element-A, based on a metric UoM. The oversight resulted in the probe descending much closer to planet MARS atmosphere, than NASA engineers originally planned.

TCM-4 planned vs. actual trajectory - Xession, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Learning & take-aways


A key mantra all CPP/S providers must add to their toolbox:

“When in doubt, spell it out !”

Interactions of solution elements, particularly elements originating from two or more teams or groups of people, require those groups to be overt and deliberate in their communications. We will talk further about clarity of communication in a future post, however this example - despite the two parties involved being absolutely world-class engineering and development organizations, illustrates even the brightest/best teams can get impacted - if they are not mindful of best-practices in day-to-day activities/interactions.


Please share your experience with us!

Have you encountered issues of mis-communication in your work? Please share in the comments below, and be certain to include your key learning and take-aways from the experience. Thank you for your time, comments and feedback are appreciated!

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