back to article Space truck Cygnus left idling outside ISS after data format snafu borks docking

The operators of Cygnus – a commercial unmanned spacecraft sent on a demonstration mission to the International Space Station – have been forced to delay its docking with the microgravity laboratory after they discovered a software glitch. It means that Cygnus won't dock with the ISS until Saturday, 28 September, at the …


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  1. Chris Miller

    "Unexpected item in the docking area"

    1. pixl97

      And the unexpected reply was

      "I'm sorry, I can't do that Dave."

      1. mhenriday

        «I'm sorry, I can't do that Dave.»

        Was that «Dave» as in David William Donald Cameron ?...


    2. BillG

      This new schedule will allow the Orbital operations team to carefully plan and be well-rested

      ...after a wild night of Russian vodka and zero-gravity partying. Woo Hoo!

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    PS. left the key inder the doormat in case we're out :)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Fixed it for you.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    trouble with the pod bay doors?

  4. an it guy

    to be fair

    They've admitted their mistake and their software onboard said that something's wrong, phoned back and said so. That's reasonable.

    Yes, we'd all like the software to be perfect, but it may not be. I'm glad the error checking worked though

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: to be fair

      That's not it at all. The ISS sent an SQL injection attack disguised as routine docking guidance info. Either to test the incoming craft's software, or so they could take remote control of it, and steal all the payload without paying.

      Once they've got control of the craft, they can turn off the downlink, quickly nick all the goodies, then de-orbit it. Who'd know?

      Every self respecting system has space pirates. Now we've got ours. Yarrr! Did this "docking" attempt take place on the 19th by any chance?

      1. oolor

        Re: space pirates

        Well the Russians are involved... who do you think ran the untraceable attack servers. Its just a variation of the Putin Superbowl ring gambit.

      2. Wzrd1

        Re: to be fair

        Wrong, the gray aliens had the NSA send a SQL injection attack disguised as routine docking guidance info in order to steal more vodka for their mothership.

        Regrettably, antivirus software caught the attack before it could cause a problem and the interruption caused the craft to go into a station keeping position in order to protect the precious vodka.

        On Saturday, Operation Grey Goose will continue as previously planned.

  5. i like crisps


    Transporters and Warp Drive are still a little bit beyond our capabilities it seems...

  6. Darren Davis

    In the beginning, there was darkness. And the darkness was without form, and void...

    Just send out Doolittle to have a word with Cygnus

    1. RealBigAl

      Re: In the beginning, there was darkness. And the darkness was without form, and void...

      That close to Earth and you want Doolittle talking to a big bomb?

  7. Simon Harris Silver badge

    Docking with the Harmony Module...

    Do they use giant aerosol cans of hairspray for the manoeuvring thrusters?

  8. Ralph B

    Following the UPS protocol

    We attempted to deliver your items at 8:45 a.m. Sunday, September 23, 2013. The delivery attempt failed because nobody was present at the shipping address, so this notification has been automatically sent.

    I bet the astronauts never even heard the doorbell ring.

    1. graeme leggett
      Thumb Up

      Re: Following the UPS protocol

      In space nobody can hear the doorbell ring.

      1. ravenviz

        Re: Following the UPS protocol

        No one can hear a doorbell in space...

    2. Blofeld's Cat

      Re: Following the UPS protocol

      ... Your package has been taken to our local depot in Alpha Centauri, where it may be collected, in person, between the hours of 10:00 and 10:03 ...

    3. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Following the UPS protocol


  9. heyrick Silver badge

    while engineers worked on fixing the problem

    Just turn it off and back on again.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      IT Angle

      Re: while engineers worked on fixing the problem

      "Just turn it off and back on again."

      What did you think the phrase "This is ground control, you are go to cycle power" meant?

      Works more often than people might realize too.

  10. squigbobble

    In space, nobody can hear you...


  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Seems to me that Cygnus is getting a lot less coverage than SpaceX? Or is that just me...

    1. Brian Souder 1

      Cygnus who?

      Cygnus who?

    2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Maybe SpaceX have better PR? But also they managed to do it first. And they're using an all-new shiny system of their own, whereas aren't Cygnus using a bunch of off-the-shelf components? Not that I'm saying rocket surgery is easy or anything.

      So you get more headlines out of SpaceX. What with aiming to get their system man-rated, talking about going to Mars, and sending CHEESE INTO SPAAAAAAAACE...

      Also having a boss with a perfect Bond Villain name has to help. You know that at some point Elon Musk's going to buy a volcano, then US and Russian rockets will start disappearing, and it's underground monorails, private armies and self-destruct buttons all over again. I've seen that documentary on the History Channel, You Only Live Twice I think it was called.

      1. Wzrd1

        "Not that I'm saying rocket surgery is easy or anything."

        Rocket surgery is incredibly easy.

        Successful rocket surgery is hard.

        See Apollo 13 for easy rocket surgery...

  12. Mr C

    baby steps guys, dont rush it

    These kinds of things are bound to happen.

    Different hardware from different manufacturers, working in different manners.

    You can avoid a lot of problems by thinking and planning, but, as so perfectly demonstrated here, there is always the unexpected.

    Before we boldly go where no man has gone before we first need to take baby steps.

  13. Bod

    Manual docking

    Just need to solve with a bit of hammering the keyboard up and down to line up, rotate, rotate, rotate, rotate... there she's goes. Docked.

    Just don't fire the lasers at the station!

  14. Timbo

    ...The company said that the craft had received data from the space station that it didn't expect. Cygnus rejected the data which, according to Orbital Sciences, "mandated an interruption of the approach sequence."

    Let me guess: NASA uses Windows and Cygnus uses a Mac?

    Or maybe NASA sent their messages via Xmodem, 8N1@9600, while Cygnus uses 7E1 @1200/75 ??

    1. Elmer Phud

      "Let me guess: NASA uses Windows"

      In that case the ISS is still trying to locate a driver for the new device in the port.

      1. RDW

        >In that case the ISS is still trying to locate a driver for the new device in the port.

        Yes, cygwin1.dll is almost certainly missing.

    2. Ottis

      ISS sent Cygnus a message saying they had BSD'd, and had to reboot...

      1. Wzrd1

        ISS sent an NMI as ctrl-alt-delete.

        Cygnus dutifully said, huh?!?!

        And sat back waiting for the silliness to end.

    3. Wzrd1

      "Or maybe NASA sent their messages via Xmodem, 8N1@9600, while Cygnus uses 7E1 @1200/75 ??"

      Nothing as complex as that.

      Cygnus uses zmodem and NASA uses kermit.

  15. rurwin

    Data format error

    The ISS still uses .doc files.

  16. Irongut

    10 days late

    I hope they weren't sending anything perishable or urgent.

    1. Richard Ball

      Re: 10 days late

      They were going to put the chicken straight in the freezer, but now it'll just have to go out for the council.

      1. ravenviz

        Re: 10 days late

        I think it was swan...

  17. Richard Wharram

    We will call you Cygnus

    The God of balance you shall be

  18. Anonymous John

    ISS: "Cygnus, you are 700 yards away."

    Cygnus: "What's a yard?"

  19. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

    Cygnus is in orbit around the earth...

    ...staying up there isn't a problem.

    Admittedly it isn't -quite- out of the atmosphere, and the ISS itself needs to be pushed up now and again to stop it from, in due course, landing.

    And there's probably things like batteries that aren't the rechargeable type...

    I also assume that Cygnus is farther than a convenient space walk away from the ISS right now...

    ...while the Russian crew flight sneaks in in its place...

    1. Wzrd1

      Re: Cygnus is in orbit around the earth...

      "...staying up there isn't a problem."

      For a month or three. Then, it'll start getting a bit wonky in its orbit, falling behind in odd ways unless corrected.

      Still, they usually maintain additional fuel for such contingencies.

      ...While the Russian crew steals the wodka and asks where it went when the docking finally occurs.

  20. Simon Harris Silver badge

    "the craft had received data from the space station that it didn't expect"

    The astronauts on the ISS had changed the docking music CD...

    ... and Cygnus got confused when it didn't hear the traditional Blue Danube.

  21. Graham Marsden

    I hope...

    ... they didn't leave the engine running, otherwise some chav might take it for a joyride...

  22. Adam T


    How much damage can come about from a docking cock-up? And how risky is it to have a floating cargo hulk sitting around while the next shipment of astronauts is trying to dock with the station in the meantime?

    Just as well it knew to stop when it realised it didn't understand the incoming data transmission.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Safety?

      When the Russians tried to operate the automatic Progress capsules without their expensive docking radars, they made a small hole in Mir, trying to dock it manually. Apparently they'd given the Cosmonaut who was docking it manually very little in the way of instruments.

      In the confusion of trying to close the airtight doors to the module with the slow leak (the crew could hear the hiss of their breathing air escaping), they killed the power, lost the main computer, which lost the lock from the solar panels to the sun, which lost them power, which meant they had to operate on emergency power for ages, and it took a lot of work to get the station even vaguely working again. I don't think Mir ever fully recovered from that, and they nearly had to abandon Mir.

      Had the thing hit a bit harder, and punctured the hull in a big way, then I guess some poor sod might end up going for an unscheduled spacewalk - minus suit. I'm sure there are parts of the ISS that can't be fixed if broken in that way, especially as we don't have shuttles any more.

      1. Adam T

        Re: Safety?

        Bloody hell. Thanks for the tale - that's quite amazing. I'm surprised that hasn't made it into a movie...sounds like they were closer to the plot of Gravity than anyone else has been.

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: Safety?

          Mir was old, and I think the extra modules weren't plumbed in all too well. I think it was the Spektr module that took the hit. The power and data cables were just clipped to the side of the airtight hatch, so you couldn't close it without removing them first. Not exactly going to pass a health and safety inspection, but then how the hell's the inspector going to get up there with his clipboard...

          I saw a documentary on this, and it claimed that the British born definitely American astronaut Michael Foale panicked and started yanking out cables, whereas the Russians were trying to power down the main computer first (or possibly get it emergency power first), then unplug power and data, then re-start so that they didn't lose the solar panel lock on the sun. I'm pretty sure the lack of power had them on emergency oxygen generators at several points, before all was up-and-running again. Getting the panels aligned and main pooter all tickety-boo and reliably working, took several weeks, from memory.

          On the other hand, that might be a Russian smoke-screen to cover the fact that they had a piss-poor and unsafe space station that nearly killed everyone on it. I'd have though airtight doors ought to really remain closed, or at least be able to automatically close in case of a major leak. After all, meteoroid damage is quite a likely incident, and if the hole is big enough, you need to have that compartment seal itself off from the rest of the station.

          It probably didn't also help that everyone seems to have reverted to their native language under the stress of listening to their air leak out of the station, while the only airtight door that could save them couldn't be shut. I believe it takes a loooong time to put a spacesuit on, you can't just step into them - unless they have emergency (lightweight) ones kicking around in case of this sort of problem.

          1. MD Rackham

            Re: Safety?

            Michael Foale's book, Dragonfly, about his time on Mir is quite an interesting read. While parts of it seem pretty defensive, his description of the docking incident and the fire (a separate incident) are quite harrowing.

            His career came to a screeching halt after he revealed just how close, and how often, Mir came to disaster. Astronauts are supposed to just suck it up.

            Anyway, a good read, although it has to be taken with a grain of salt, or at least balanced by the Russian side of things.

            1. Wzrd1

              Re: Safety?

              "Astronauts are supposed to just suck it up."

              Not really.

              Astronauts/Cosmonauts are expected to clean up the screwups of those on the ground and let those on the ground paint a rosy picture of it when it goes public.

              Rather a lot like special operation types in the various militaries.

              The guy at the brutal end of reality has to clean up what the higher ups screw up.

              AKA, business as usual.

              It is what it is. Ugly, brutal, honest and true.

              It isn't pretty, but it is the reality of the world regardless of nation.

              Because, people are people, regardless of where on this blue ball of water and rock you find them.

          2. Wzrd1

            Re: Safety?

            " I'd have though airtight doors ought to really remain closed, or at least be able to automatically close in case of a major leak. "

            Spacecraft and space stations operate under rather low pressure. Far lower than sea level, more like 10-12000 feet air pressure (excuse the imperial, it's late and I really don't feel like converting right now, sorry).

            Even a major leak, which that one actually was, wasn't a you're dead in a minute kind a deal. If it was, we'd be reading about a crew that died in the line of duty.

            As for panic, there was a managed panic on all hands to get that crap out of the way, try to use procedures, note the loss of pressure rate, etc. The result was, as I recall from the more confidential report was that a Russian actually cut some cables to clear the hatch. The American was unplugging in a somewhat uncontrolled fashion, but only somewhat.

            All were doing what they could to avoid attempting to respire in a vacuum. The loss of Spektr and half of the station power was essentially unavoidable, due to a shitty design that never considered the loss of a module.

            As for reverting to native language, that does happen in a stress situation. It seems to have partially done so then as well.

            Fortunately, anyone that *any* nation trains and sends to space is also one well vetted to handle life or death stress and has repeatedly done so in the real world, not exclusively one of training.

            That's why former fighter pilots are so frequently chosen. The safety margin on fighters is far lower than on any other aircraft due to the nature of the duty requirements.

        2. Wzrd1

          Re: Safety?

          Dunno, Apollo 13 came damned close.

      2. Wzrd1

        Re: Safety?

        It was a *bit* uglier than that.

        In order to close the hatches, they had to unplug and even cut cables to get them out of the way.

        That was what caused the loss of computer and half of the station's power.

        You run extension cords out of the door of your house. *NOT* through airtight hatches that can save your life!

        A lesson Russian space engineers learned the hard way that day.

        Or, after they got back up after the Cosmonauts explained their frustration with their obstinacy...

    2. Wzrd1

      Re: Safety?

      "How much damage can come about from a docking cock-up?"

      I remember back in 1987, Mir lost a module due to a docking cock-up. The Cosmonauts heard this bang, then hisssssssssss...

      It was a rather heated moment, disconnecting all manner of cabling to close the hatches before everyone had to learn how to do without oxygen.

      For it sitting around idling, not a big deal. It's parked out of the way and the Soyuz is more than able to steer around odd debris in its way. Why, they even have a Cosmonaut version of a steering wheel to steer around obstacles. ;)

  23. Brian Souder 1

    Sticky On The Door

    They essentially left a sticky on the front door and left it out back.

  24. Anonymous Coward

    Trouble started to dog Cygnus ...

    You guys.....

  25. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    This was *not* supposed to happen. Orbital are *experienced* govt space contractors

    IE The "Safe pair of hands" winner of the COTS contract.

    While Spacex were viewed as the inexperienced chancers launch service providers by NASA, who needed a safe pair of hands to back them up.

    It's not quite worked out that way. It's Spacex who've started the actually cargo deliveries (the CRS contract) and Orbital that are still in "testing."

    Fortunately both have already trousered a portion of the cash for every cargo launch.

    BTW the S/W glitch seems to be that Orbital are using the 13 bit week counter in the updated GPS spec and ISS uses the the older 10 bit week counter, that rolled over in 1999.

    Which is odd, give that Orbitals Antares/Cygnus was much more of a systems integration exercise than Spacex's F9/Dragon. Sort of like a Dell versus say an HP.

    You'd think they'd have had eyes wide open for those sort of interface glitches, when they bolted the assorted Russian, Italian and Japanese kit (and a few other nations as well I'd guess) kit together.

    But apparently not.

    1. Steve Knox

      Re: This was *not* supposed to happen. Orbital are *experienced* govt space contractors

      Orbital are *experienced* govt space contractors

      Which explains why SpaceX moved faster. They didn't have the experience that tells all seasoned government contractors just how long to drag out the contract.

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

        Re: This was *not* supposed to happen. Orbital are *experienced* govt space contractors

        "Which explains why SpaceX moved faster. They didn't have the experience that tells all seasoned government contractors just how long to drag out the contract."

        You might think that.

        I could not possibly comment...

        1. Kharkov

          Re: This was *not* supposed to happen. Orbital are *experienced* govt space contractors

          Time for Elon Musk to step in, I think...

          Have him send over an engineer with a USB full of up-to-date file protocols.

          "This is a USB Memory Stick. Put it in the hole... no, not THAT one..."

    2. mhenriday

      «BTW the S/W glitch seems to be that Orbital are using the 13 bit week counter

      in the updated GPS spec and ISS uses the the older 10 bit week counter, that rolled over in 1999.»

      Rather the other way round according to NASA :

      «The issue that led to the Cygnus-ISS GPS communication issue is that Orbital interpreted that that ISS PROX system was transmitting GPS times based on the 1980 ephemeris, and thus used the 1980 ephemeris in Cygnus’ on-board SIGI units too.

      In reality however, the ISS PROX system uses the 1999 ephemeris for its GPS time data, which meant Cygnus could not understand the GPS time data being transmitted to it from the ISS, hence the reason for the aborted rendezvous attempt.

      In all of the integrated Cygnus rendezvous tests that were performed on the ground, the incorrect 1980 ephemeris was used, and thus it was not until the JEM PROX receivers were put into the loop that the discrepancy was discovered.»


      1. chris lively

        Re: «BTW the S/W glitch seems to be that Orbital are using the 13 bit week counter

        Just to be clear: this problem came about because IT failed to create a staging area that was an accurate representation of the production systems. Sounds familiar. Probably some middle manager didnt understand what the hoopla was about when the programmers said they wanted a copy of the production system for integration testing.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    not Elite yet

    1. dmck

      Re: not Elite yet

      I think you'll find the software flaw had something to do with the random number generator.

      The NSA said it was nothing to do with them, but the software password was available on request.

  27. codeusirae

    Problem with acquiring GPS data ..

    "with Cygnus around 15km from the ISS, a problem was noted with the GPS readings between Cygnus and the ISS .. information acquired by L2 cite the two ways of specifying GPS time as key to the problem on Sunday."

  28. Winkypop Silver badge

    All this space

    And someone has to go park right next to us!

  29. CapinCooke

    Dave did it

    Actually, they picked up a fault in the AE35 unit. It's was going to go 100% failure in 72 hours.

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