back to article SpaceX didn't move sat out of impending smash doom because it 'didn't see ESA's messages'

Elon Musk's SpaceX has claimed that a mysterious comms "bug" was what stopped it from moving its satellites away from an orbital collision course. The European Space Agency carried out a "collision avoidance manoeuvre" earlier this week when it realised one of its satellites was on course to potentially bump into a flock of …

  1. BebopWeBop Silver badge

    Musk: Honest guv, And our cars autopilot abuses the same quality assurance processes as well. So it must be kosher

    1. Flywheel Silver badge

      Was there a bagel and coffee involved?

  2. Rich 11 Silver badge

    [Insert obligatory Brexit reference here]

    "turn right" if you're running head on into someone else

    This is the rule Boris Johnson follows when he sees Nigel Farage coming.

  3. Shady

    I OWN SPACE

    You move out of MY WAY.

    But for an optional fee, you can equip your satellite with our Almost-Hands-Free AutoSpacePilot, and then you wouldn't need to ask! Would you? Huh?

    Seriously - this is YOUR fault, and you're all a bunch of *****.

    Yours,

    Musky.

    1. Starace Silver badge
      Flame

      Re: I OWN SPACE

      You joke, but I'm sure I remember one of their claims for Starlink included some sort of automatic collision avoidance system?

      Guess that must be from the same team as Autopilot, Summon and FSD.

    2. quxinot Silver badge

      Re: I OWN SPACE

      This is a lighthouse.

      Your call.

      1. sundog
        Pint

        Re: I OWN SPACE

        You, sir, have made me receive looks from my cow-orkers that plainly show they now doubt my sanity and mental state. I applaud the reference, and offer you a pint.

        1. Jaybus

          Re: I OWN SPACE

          Now is that a nice way to talk about the women you work with, even if they are a bit overweight?

      2. Scroticus Canis
        Happy

        Re: I OWN SPACE

        How many Falcon Heavies did you strap together to get that bugger up there?

    3. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

      Re: I OWN SPACE

      you just have to say "Oh My God Its Coming Straight For Us!"

      ...and then you're allowed to shoot it .

    4. jmch Silver badge

      Re: I OWN SPACE

      "But for an optional fee, you can equip your satellite with our Almost-Hands-Free AutoSpacePilot,"

      I can see the ad now: Our all-new SpacePilot(TM) drives your spaceship for you* and sip on a Pan-Galactic-Gargle-Blaster** while you can enjoy the view from the window***

      *<tiny font>please keep you hands on the controls at all times</>

      **<tiny font>virgin one, you need to be paying attention</>

      ***<tiny font>mostly black and pretty boring, actually. so better pay attention to your controls to make sure SpacePilot (TM) is behaving</>

  4. MadonnaC

    With my expertise at turning right, by the time I figure out which way right is, I'll have solved all the satellite collision prevention routines by taking them out in a cascading failure

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
      Happy

      I was listening to the excellent Omega Tau Science podcast - as recommended in the comments on here. It was the article on El Reg's trip to HMS Enterprise - and said podcast had done an episode on a trip to the same ship. It's the only one I've listened to yet, but I'm hoping the others are as good.

      Bloke is interviewing navigator during a normal bridge watch. Alarm goes off. Navigator interrupts interview to say, "oh that's a false alarm on the collision avoidance system." Asks crewman to go and turn it off. "It's on the starboard panel." - "No! Your other starboard!"

  5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    For someone setting themselves up in the comms business a bug in their pager S/W isn't a good advert.

    1. ArrZarr Silver badge

      Show me a piece of software without bugs and I'll show you Hello World.

      1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

        Or maybe, I will show you two medium-sized projects of mine. And that letter notifying me that I was accepted into the PhD program in mathematics.

        It CAN be done for projects with fixed and clearly-defined parameters. It's not cheap, though.

        1. Bronek Kozicki Silver badge
          Trollface

          "... letter notifying me that I was accepted into the PhD program in mathematics."

          Congratulations, but PhD in mathematics typically has no relevance to code quality.

          1. cantankerous swineherd

            [citation needed]

          2. ATeal

            Proper computer science is maths. Formal verification and the computational hierarchy and all that abstract theoretical shit - all ours.

            You can tell it's maths because "fuck it, let's not bother with that much pedantry" happens all the time and very little formally verifies.

            Want examples?

            PS: I am hoping I never need a pace maker because the way things are/are-going that shit is going to hurt when it skips a beat traversing all those page tables to load some part of a JavaVM

            One day (unfortunately) that's going to happen....

            Hardcore real time systems that used to be on those massive late-60s/early-70s IBM mainframes used to run nuclear power-plants, 3 have transitioned to an emulator running on windows :/

            1. Tom 38 Silver badge

              Isn't that the point of Z notation?

              1. ATeal

                There's LOADS of attempts but in general proving programs is hard. There was an example I was reading on Wikipedia the other day for random variate generation that used c++11's thread_local to store a bool so the second call returned the 2nd value of the variate.

                So rather than a function returning a struct containing two members, the first call returns the first, the 2nd call returns a stashed value in thread locals, the 3rd calculates the next pair and so forth.

                Languages let you do stupid shit like this, even recognising what's an even call and what's an odd call gets very difficult (and thus: can'tbe done) VERY quick. This is the main problem with formal verification.

                The message here is that to formally verify requires either human help/theorem proving in all it's nasty generality to MAYBE do it, or extremely limited languages that stop nice things. I'm not saying the above is good. It's an example of stuff you /may/ write that makes the problem difficult. Even though this is abhorrent - but exists and came from a reference.

                1. SloppyJesse

                  "Languages let you do stupid shit like this, " ... "This is the main problem with formal verification."

                  Isn't that the point of having languages like Ada that is strict about what you can write, allowing formal verification to take place? In other words, if you need formal verification, don't use a language that allows you to do stupid shit.

                  1. ATeal

                    There's a restriction of Ada called Spark that has the hardcore stuff, requires human help to take it through the theorem proving.

                    Ada (and Haskell and Ocaml) are more about typing to help stop errors. Consider the humble "length of a list" - establishing the invariant of "length goes up by one on an append" is not trivial because of wrap-around/undefined-overflow/memory-allocation-for-arbitrary-precision.

                    You can boil it down to inductive proofs that never really mention the length explicitly - but as I said, this "isn't fun" to say the least.

                    It gets even more restrictive/not-fun if you have concurrent things involved (that are not nice and separate).

                    Another example would be formally verifying kernels. These usually are "plugin" or modular designs, you formally verify the tiny core bit, the crap that does file-systems and process scheduling when they can communicate - whoa it gets nasty quick.

                    Another area is guaranteeing that threads make progress - I blame lack of this on one of a handful of reasons Intel's transactional memory shit was shit.

            2. John Watts

              When Sun owned Java the EULA said it wasn't warranted for use in medical equipment (or nuclear or military). Are you saying pacemaker manufacturers haven't read the agreement?

              1. ATeal

                Even this guy hasn't read the EULA since - because "no warranty" carries so much weight and people think about whether or not they should be doing this.

                There's a "hard" real time Linux that's separate from the kernel. I forget it's name, but even it focuses on 99%th percentiles the terms and requirements have become diluted. It may get millions of hours of safety but only go through a handful of codepaths.

                C'mon guys you should know this. That you don't is (crackpot as this sounds) my point!

              2. Carpet Deal 'em Bronze badge

                Are you suggesting that anyone reads the agreement?

            3. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

              Even top quality coders will have system integration bugs. Those old reliable systems didn't have to chat much with the rest of the world.

          3. DiViDeD Silver badge

            Re: PhD in mathematics typically has no relevance to code quality

            Absolutely not! I wouldn't trust most of my code further than I could comfortably spit a rat.

            And I can't work out darts scores in my head, either, much to the amusement of fellow students at the time.

            1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

              Re: Dart scores

              My dad would often say he's not that kind of mathematician (retired applied maths prof, Warwick Uni).

            2. Pirate Dave Silver badge
              Pirate

              Re: PhD in mathematics typically has no relevance to code quality

              As my CompSci Prof used to ask us "Would you trust your code to run an automated circumcision machine?" (or something like that)

              He was a mathematics PhD, and made bank moonlighting and doing the hard, formal proof of correctness for local software companies. But even he said it was impractical to completely and totally prove the correctness of even a modest program - it took a long, long time, and cost a bundle.

          4. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Do please try to conceal your ignorance – code quality used by all the tools is based on particular types of Mathematics, mainly Logic and Graph Theory.

            Now run along a study really hard and you might manage one O level.

          5. Claptrap314 Silver badge

            Would you believe several years of being told, "That's not a proof, you did not think about X" would help?

            It took me years to get to the level of what I would consider to be a software engineer after leaving academia. The first of these projects happened BEFORE that. The code was not that great. But I had gained enough paranoia from my education that it was bug free.

        2. Long John Brass Silver badge
          Flame

          In theory

          In theory there is no difference between theory and practice

          In practice there is

        3. Lotaresco
          Boffin

          "Or maybe, I will show you two medium-sized projects of mine. And that letter notifying me that I was accepted into the PhD program in mathematics."

          OK, first prove to me that the microcode of the system you are running your code on is error free. Good luck with that.

          As to your second statement, that's reading awfully like "BA Calcutta (failed)". I'd be more impressed if you had been awarded your PhD and had about 30 years experience before you started to tell me that you can create error free code. And even then I'd want to know that the entire stack was error free, not just the sprinkling of fairy dust you put on top of the sewage layer cake.

          1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

            Be impressed that I created these projects without actually getting my PhD. I never claimed that the entire systems are bug free. If you follow my posts, you know that I have worked in microprocessor design, so I KNOW that the processors are not perfect.

            I also have used a formal proof checker. These things CAN be done, for a sufficiently limited scope.

            But never cheaply.

      2. JohnFen Silver badge

        It's true that "all nontrivial software contains bugs". However, high quality software has undergone sufficient testing and development to ensure that the bugs that it contains are not of the sort that will cause it to fail in critical operations.

        1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

          Recursive problem

          Assuming your testing programme is well defined to cover all combinations of possible input and output states, your unit tests are themselves bug free, and your tools for system test, UAT, fuzzing etc. are similarly free of impactful flaws.

          Which relies on the tests testing those testers to be bug free.

          Which relies on... arrrgh!

          It's turtles all the way down.

          1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

            Re: Recursive problem

            You have to define the system of your claim carefully. Then you can bring in someone trained in doing proof of systems of that type.

            And thank the heavens for Bertrand Russel.

      3. heyrick Silver badge

        Show me a piece of software without bugs

        All software has bugs, but if you're planning to set yourself up in communications, you don't want to have your communications hardware experience the kind of "bug" that sounds like a made up excuse for failing to give a shit about anything else in orbit.

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Suggesting your hello world is going to be bug free? Let’s take the simple one-liner:

        printf(“Hello, World!”);

        What if that call gets interrupted by a signal (returning EINTR)? Presumably a bug-free version would handle this and try again?

        What about EAGAIN? Presumably some kind of back-off timing, followed by a retry?

        What about the numerous other errors that printf could return?

        What if it returns a positive number less than 13? I don’t even know if that is possible (man pages are pretty vague on this so I suspect it’ll be implementation specific) but presumably any implementation claiming bug-free status would need to at least consider this possibility too?

        By the time you’re finished, this isn’t going to be a simple one-liner anymore!

        1. eldakka Silver badge

          Evolution of a Programmer

          Explained in Evolution of a Programmer.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Their spam filter ate it. E-Mail is such a legacy system.

      ESA should've gone with the times and used WhatsApp or post Sadellite memes on Instagram.

      Do I really need to add the joke icon?

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Isn't there a famous dating app that tells you when compatible partners are nearby?

        Surely that could be adapted to send a message "hot satelite at your location in 30s, if you fancy a collision"

        1. Mr Booth
          Coat

          ahem...

          It's called Grindr.

          And very appropriate in this case :)

          Mine's the coat with.... well you really don't want to know.

        2. Psmo Bronze badge
          Go

          Innafacebook ?

          Smashr ?

          Whatsatcomingatmeatseveralthousandmilesanhour ?

          Instagrammes ?

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Look ahead...

    there's a fly in the ointment

  7. Gordon 10 Silver badge
    Pint

    So....

    The SpaceX space BOFH was in the pub ignoring his pager?

    1. Commswonk Silver badge

      Re: So....

      The SpaceX space BOFH was in the pub ignoring his pager?

      No; the system failed to tell him to keep both hands on the wheel and he overlooked the fact that he was supposed to be in control at all times.

      1. ATeal

        Re: So....

        Ooof. Damn.

  8. Tikimon Silver badge
    Coat

    Which way is Right?

    It's all relative to the orbiting body and who is considered an adversary. The enemy's gate is Down.

    1. Dave 32
      Coat

      Re: Which way is Right?

      "Thank you for this danc<SMASH>"

    2. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

      Re: Which way is Right?

      "The enemy's gate is Down"

      Ender reference. Excellent.

  9. Dinanziame
    Paris Hilton

    > "a bug in our on-call paging system"

    Why don't I find that reassuring?

  10. Symon Silver badge
    Mushroom

    "Aircraft must also turn right if they're in an imminent collision situation."

    Commercial aircraft must obey the TCAS instructions, even if air traffic control say otherwise. The original TCAS instructions didn't make this totally clear, with tragic consequences.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2002_%C3%9Cberlingen_mid-air_collision#TCAS_and_conflicting_orders

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: "Aircraft must also turn right if they're in an imminent collision situation."

      That usually works but yes, local instructions are supposed to take precedent. Saw a case in 'Nam where two Huey Cobras were taking off and requested the normal "break left" (local rule due to other A/C) out of the pattern. Tower came back and said "Break right". Needless to say, one heard and responded the other didn't. Two choppers down and 4 guys dead because of that.

    2. Juhani Vehvilainen

      Re: "Aircraft must also turn right if they're in an imminent collision situation."

      TCAS only issues "climb" or "descend" commands, in other words it operates only in the vertical dimension, turning left or right is not an issue. But you're right in that when TCAS tells you to climb or descend, you do exactly that irrespective of what the ATC says or has said (because the TCAS command is based on an automatic negotiation between the two planes so the commands are guaranteed to be coordinated - one is descending while the other one is climbing).

      1. not.known@this.address Bronze badge
        Black Helicopters

        Re: "Aircraft must also turn right if they're in an imminent collision situation."

        If the two aircraft are heading in opposite directions then if both turn right they will definitely avoid a collision; because right for a North-facing aircraft is East and it's West for a South-facing aircraft. If both turn right then there is no way they will meet unless both go all the way around the globe and are both very unlucky.

        It gets more interesting if their courses are within 90 degrees of each other, because then a right turn could still leave them on converging courses - just leading to a different collision point.

        1. eldakka Silver badge
          Facepalm

          Re: "Aircraft must also turn right if they're in an imminent collision situation."

          If the two aircraft are heading in opposite directions then if both turn right they will definitely avoid a collision; because right for a North-facing aircraft is East and it's West for a South-facing aircraft.

          Only if they actually stop turning right. If they continue to turn right with different turn radii, never ceasing their turns, then they might spiral together and still collide.

  11. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    Go

    Musk was just waiting....

    For his spaceship-capture ship to be ready, so he could grab the ESA satellite and return it to his volcano lair, thus preventing the orbital collision.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Musk was just waiting....

      How do you know that it isn't ready? It just wasn't activated because the message got lost. Or it was activated, but they forgot to email and say, "Nnot to worry, we'll be moving you don't need to [evil laugh]."

      1. Marketing Hack Silver badge

        Re: Musk was just waiting....

        It was probably ready to launch for the interception, but some impeccably dressed, martini-drinking British guy busted in and caused the launch to be aborted.

  12. Tom Paine Silver badge

    Right? Wrong!

    Starboard!!!

    1. yoganmahew

      Re: Right? Wrong!

      And larboard.

      What could go wrong?

  13. HamsterNet

    This would be why they are test sats

    Glad this issue has been found before they launch the 1000s of them. Gives insight that the auto maneuvering isn't live yet, just like the between sat coms. Long way to go to get LEO constlations up and running, but thats what testing is for.

    For those bashing Tesla's autopilot, have you tried it verses say Toyota lane-keeping assistant? Tesla drives nicly down the road, will go around parked cars, overtakes (on multi lane roads) works nicely almost all of the time. Toyotas latest and greatest system will only keep you in lane and does so like its very drunk, swerving from one side to the other then setting off alarms as IT dives over the lines and thats when the road is clealy marked. Anywhere where its not, the car drives in the middle-ish of the road!

    1. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: This would be why they are test sats

      As a Toyota driver I can say it doesn’t work like that. But the point of it is to alert the driver to drifting out of lane, it’s not a self driving function.

      It beeps a warning when you get near the line and if you do nothing it steers gently away from the line. If you change lanes without indicating, you feel that momentary torque on the steering.

      I don’t think Toyota dare put a true driving system on mainstream cars yet because as soon as there is one incident the regulators in US will fine the impudent Japanese upstart to hell.

      1. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: This would be why they are test sats

        Some of the newer Ford vehicles here in the States have that also. It will gently move the wheel while sounding the alarm but it's gentle enough that light hand pressure can override it.

        Disclaimer: I'm not fond of these things at this point. Too much can go wrong including giving the driver a sense of well-being and immortality.

        1. Richard Jones 1
          FAIL

          Re: This would be why they are test sats

          I have lane assist in my car and a right pain it is; so I turned it off. On good multi lane main roads it is possibly OK, but on patched and ill maintained small country roads it is pointless noise. It responds to the frayed edge of the road, to linear black marks where damage has been cheaply patched with tar covering the join and so on.

          1. MachDiamond Silver badge

            Re: This would be why they are test sats

            "I have lane assist in my car and a right pain it is; so I turned it off."

            On just about every trip on the motorway I need to move to one side of my lane or the other to avoid debris or to give more room to a stopped vehicle on the shoulder if I can't move over. I would never want the car to do anything to pull the car back over. A big chunk of truck tire tread can do an amazing amount of damage to a small car.

    2. IGotOut

      Re: This would be why they are test sats

      Autopilot. Is not autopilot.

      Lane Assist. Assists you staying in lane.

      I know which one has the bullshit name

      1. stiine Silver badge

        Re: This would be why they are test sats

        All of the traffic lanes where you live must have visible striping? Around here.... not so much.

    3. Pascal Monett Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      Re: Tesla drives nicly down the road

      And it also drives nicely right into parked vehicles.

      Sorry, your obvious fan fiction does not impress me. If Tesla's disastrously named autopilot was sooo good, we wouldn't be reading soo many sad tales about when it miserably failed.

    4. 404 Silver badge

      Re: This would be why they are test sats

      Were you locked out of your Tesla yesterday?

      Just curious....

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: This would be why they are test sats

      Found the panicked Tesla investor shilling for his hero.

      Hopefully the FCC/ITC doesn't allow them to enable this auto maneuvering thing, since Musk has demonstrated time and again he cares more about publicity than waiting for a product to be working properly before throwing it out there. To the detriment of several people killed by Autopilot's shortcomings (granted they were at fault too for giving it far more trust than it deserves)

      1. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: This would be why they are test sats

        "Musk has demonstrated time and again he cares more about publicity than waiting for a product to be working properly"

        I've seen a few examples of this. After there was a Tesla fire in an underground car park, Tesla released an update to the software before there was time to do an analysis of what happened. Was this something they already knew could be a problem with existing BMS (battery management system) settings?

        When there was a reported issue with long braking distances, Tesla had a software patch out in a couple of days. I have to wonder if they did a full suite of tests or just a couple of dry pavement runs. It would suck to find out that with wet pavement, ice or gravel the braking was made worse.

        Tesla owners are test subjects. Most other manufacturers will spend about 18 months testing from sub-systems up to final candidate testing on real roads before they release a new model. There isn't a good replacement for bottom up design. The assumptions you didn't know you were making and all that.

    6. Brangdon

      Re: This would be why they are test sats

      Apparently the Starlink collision avoidance is live, and has been used dozens of times. Presumably it is only used to avoid space junk and other Starlink satellites, though. Avoiding active satellites controlled by another party can't be done without negotiating with the other party, in case they both move in the same direction.

      Which is why the fact that SpaceX had said they weren't going to move was actually helpful in this case, because it enabled ESA to move.

  14. Brian Miller

    "Turn right" and fuel

    Bit of a problem in space, there. The satellites only have their orbit, and can move "up" or "down" just so much. And you can't adjust them all the time, because it isn't possible for them to be refueled. I would have thought that when a satellite is launched, the predicted orbit takes into account possible collisions over a long period, say 100 years of predicted trajectories. Just because Elon Musk's employees aren't getting alerts because they're smoking a bunt with the boss of a software bug, the trajectory prediction analysis should have been done, and if the satellite wasn't in its proper orbit from a bad launch, then the analysis should be done again.

    The anime "Planetes" explores a future where space junk needs to be cleaned up. At this rate, I doubt we'll get that far. It will be a garbage patch up there, just like down here.

    1. JohnFen Silver badge

      Re: "Turn right" and fuel

      "the predicted orbit takes into account possible collisions over a long period, say 100 years of predicted trajectories."

      No satellite will last anywhere close to 100 years. The design lifetime of a satellite depends on the satellite, but 10-15 years is considered "standard".

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
        Unhappy

        "No satellite will last anywhere close to 100 years. "

        Working satellite? No.

        Lump of metal that can crash into something.

        Definitely.

        At not much higher altitude 1000 year stable orbits are possible.

        This is why modern satellites have "graveyard burn" fuel to get them to either re-enter or push them out of the way (Like geo comm sats that are pretty far out already).

      2. TRT Silver badge

        Re: "Turn right" and fuel

        Which makes me wonder... does a dead satellite get an orbituary?

        1. Psmo Bronze badge

          Re: "Turn right" and fuel

          does a dead satellite get an orbituary?

          One or two of them have 'round here.

    2. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: "Turn right" and fuel

      "It will be a garbage patch up there, just like down here."

      What rarely gets reported are all of the shipping containers that have fallen overboard and are floating just below the surface. Most will finally fill up with water and sink to the bottom, but many well sealed containers and those with buoyant cargos will bob around for ages. Imagine if those containers were all moving around at 25 mph. Even a big cargo ship's propeller isn't going to tolerate a collision. Let's further imagine that the container ship continues on a new vector with about the same speed and can't be latched on to and taken under tow.

  15. heyrick Silver badge

    Right...

    So we're in a three dimensional environment where the only decent directions are "closer to or further away from that big lump of rock", the only thing defining "up" is which way the antenna points. So, uh, remind me, which way is "right"?

    1. fidodogbreath Silver badge
      1. TRT Silver badge

        Re: Right...

        What he lacks in experience he makes up for in enthusiasm.

        That's one of those double-edge sayings. I saw a chap with a t-shirt this morning that read "In my defence, I was left unsupervised..."

    2. jmch Silver badge

      Re: Right...

      "So we're in a three dimensional environment where the only decent directions are "closer to or further away from that big lump of rock", the only thing defining "up" is which way the antenna points. So, uh, remind me, which way is "right"?"

      Wrong. There are 2 reference points, one is the 'big lump of rock', and one is the direction of travel. By simply defining the 'big lump of rock' as 'down' (actually it's a comms satellite, so the antenna points 'down' anyway), and the direction of travel as 'forward' you have all the orientation you need to work out which way is 'right'.

      Granted, the fact that you're orbiting around the rock means that the direction of 'down' constantly changes, but so is every other satellite, so there is a common reference point (Earth) and plane (the sphere of orbit at that orbit height). Conceptually that's not so different from an aeroplane flying very high up.

      One bit missing: the traditional 'on collision course, both turn right' only works to avoid head-on collisions. If one object is approaching another from behind, 'both turn right' could still result in collision.

  16. SotarrTheWizard
    Trollface

    A pity Elon doesn't use spray tan. . . .

    . . . . then we could all say. . .

    ORANGE MUSK BAD. . . .

  17. DrG

    Here's what happen, I will bet money on it:

    - Initial event goes into some ticketing system tied to a pager

    - SpaceX gets the alert, discusses the probabilities, everything is fine, does nothing

    - Closes the "ticket"

    - Odds get recalculated, things are not ok. New information is sent to the same, now closed, ticket.

    - No paging on closed tickets, no one gets notified

    Makes too much sense to not be true :)

    Funny how nothing is really new.

    G.

    1. MooseBerg

      Hey look, someone who's actually worked with paging systems! Sounds very likely to me. That, or the paging system went nuts and had been muted (been there before...)

      Honestly though the article is a bit OTT - the collision risk was still below ESAs threshold for needing to take action although they chose to do so in this case so to suggest they'd be getting 'frantic' particularly when capable of taking action on their own seems like it's trying to make something out of it that simply never happened.

      That said, I do hope we get proper coordinated automated avoidance systems up and running as it shouldn't be *that* hard, even if it's just an advisory system initially.

  18. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
  19. keith_w
    Alien

    correct me 'cause i am sure i am wrong

    It was my understanding that if you are in the same orbit, you will be travelling at the same speed, and therefore unlikely to overtake anyone. To overtake, or just catchup to the other satellite, you must slow down and descend to a lower orbit, which, being closer to the big pile of rock allows you cover a greater portion of your orbit in the same amount of time or the proportion of your orbit in less time. at the appropriate time in your orbit, you may increase your speed to rise to the original orbit and either collide or capture the other satellite.

    I would also like to point out that when facing a collision, turn right only helps when you are approaching the other member of your collision pair head on as my turning to my right will be me turning to your left, and vice-versa. It was my understanding that in space most satellites are orbiting west to east equatorially.

    1. Spherical Cow Bronze badge

      Re: correct me 'cause i am sure i am wrong

      If you are traveling in the same *circular* orbit you will be traveling at the same speed, but if at least one orbit is elliptical the speeds can be different and an overtaking collison is possible.

    2. Doug 4

      Re: correct me 'cause i am sure i am wrong

      Satellites don't all travel in the same orbit like a freight train.

      Google 'Stuff in Space' and visit the website.

      Leave your mouse pointer stationary and you will see orbits change as the planet rotates.

      I'll leave the rest up to your imagination.

    3. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: correct me 'cause i am sure i am wrong

      >It was my understanding that if you are in the same orbit, you will be travelling at the same speed, and therefore unlikely to overtake anyone

      But only true if you are travelling in the same direction.

      > It was my understanding that in space most satellites are orbiting west to east equatorially.

      Not if you want to provide global internet, These satelites are going at all angles to the equator so that they cover the entire surface. But mostly they are in inclinations that bring them upto the 55-60deg latitude of northern Europe, there isn't much traffic in the arctic/antarctic so no need to have good coverage further than that.

      1. Doug 4

        Re: correct me 'cause i am sure i am wrong

        I would like to point out that there are over 20,000 man made identified objects in space and this is only a small fraction of the space junk that encircles the earth.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: correct me 'cause i am sure i am wrong

          However, space is big

          You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is

          1. CliveS

            Re: correct me 'cause i am sure i am wrong

            I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's peanuts compared to space.

  20. CommanderGalaxian
    FAIL

    MAD

    1 in 10k chance of collision - and SpaceX plan is to launch 12k satellites. Nothing to worry about, move right along, nothing to see here, nothing to worry abo....<connection dropped>....

  21. dnicholas Bronze badge

    This is what happens when you launch a bunch of junk. Commercial space launches: yes please. Commercial space littering: no thanks

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      These satelites are in a VERY low orbit so don't last long and won't contribute to space junk. Any debris from a collision will very quickly decay.

      This problem was because the ESA craft is also in a very low orbit to study high altitude weather.

      1. Long John Brass Silver badge
        Pirate

        Any debris from a collision will very quickly decay.

        *MOST* of the debris will quickly decay; Some of the debris may well be kicked into a higher orbit.

        1. Robert Heffernan

          That's not 100% accurate. Some of the debris will have their Apoapsis raised, but they will still have a low enough Periapsis to bring them down soon enough.

          A collision won't suddenly cause a piece of debris to perform a 2-Burn Hohmann Transfer manuver into a higher orbit.

          1. Crisp Silver badge

            @Robert Heffernan

            You are Jebediah Kerman, and I claim my five pounds.

          2. MachDiamond Silver badge

            "That's not 100% accurate. Some of the debris will have their Apoapsis raised, but they will still have a low enough Periapsis to bring them down soon enough.

            A collision won't suddenly cause a piece of debris to perform a 2-Burn Hohmann Transfer manuver into a higher orbit."

            Yes, yes, but. You now wind up with a spray of debris of unknown size and velocity going in an unknown direction. Possibly a direction that could intersect several other satellites. You can't maneuver those satellites because you don't know which way to go.

            The bigger pieces of debris can be seen with radar and are tracked. It's all of the smaller stuff that becomes an issue. There is a satellite about the size of a double decker bus that went dead right in the middle of a transmission. Weather sat, I think. The only hypothesis on the cause is some small debris hit it right in the wrong place. The track deviated only very slightly. Took ages to see the error and it doesn't receive/respond to any data sent to it. All comms were lost all at once with no health issues noted beforehand. Since sats are fantastically expensive items, the more that get knocked out, the tougher it is to get return on investment.

  22. stronk

    'Space junk'

    Amusingly, at least one part of the BBC is referring to SpaceX's satellites as 'space junk'.

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/49566370

    1. Doug 4

      Re: 'Space junk'

      More amusingly, they called it rubbish. That's funny from a Canadian viewpoint.

      Space junk: European Space Agency satellite dodges rubbish in space

  23. Andrew Jones 2

    If only there was some kind of technology, where when you needed to warn someone of a critical situation - you could pick up a device, and type some sort of identifier in to it, and then reach a person and talk, using your voice. Perhaps people and companies could all have these identifiers, and you could save them in your device with names so you can easily find them. And for some pie-in-the-sky thinking, the device could even be portable.

    Why doesn't someone invent something like that? What would we call it? I quite like the sound of The Global System for Communication (GSM for short).

    .....

    1. Doug 4

      Not sure where you're coming from but the technology already exists.

      Death from above.

    2. stronk

      My word, what a genius idea!

      But why stop there? If it's portable then eventually everyone will have this personal communicator technology. We can build in all sorts of little extra tools. Why not glue a camera to the back? Looking around for a bottle opener? No problem! Before long, they will be fantastically useful for spies and keeping cheeky revolutionary types in check.

      And I'm just spitballing here, but why don't we make the power source double as an incendiary device, so that when the time comes for the computers to take over, every human in the world has a nice little fire starter on their person. That'd save a lot of time and hassle exterminating them one by one.

      Once the computers are calling the shots, the satellite collision problem will be well in-hand. Problem solved!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Make the corners rounded, and we'll talk...

  24. DownUndaRob
    FAIL

    Faulty Process

    So the system sending the alerts didn't have an alternative notification method, like perhaps human intervention of picking up an old fashioned telephone and calling someone.

  25. Robert Heffernan
    Facepalm

    Pick up the fucking PHONE!

    Ok, so if the ESA was sending messages and getting no response, didn't ANYONE there think "Hey, how about we just PHONE them".

    Email is such a terrible form of communication these days, filters, spam, phishing, interception, there are a million different ways email can fail, so if you're relying on it for CRITICAL communications you're doing it wrong!

    It might be time for the formation of a global ATC for space. They get provided the orbits of **ALL** spacecraft in operation.. and I mean **ALL** none of this top secret spy satellite bullshit. If it's up there, it's in scope for the Space ATC. They are responsible for issuing instructions to maneuver a satellite or satellites to avoid collisions, taking into account the types of spacecraft involved.

  26. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Boffin

    For writing low error software...

    Do what IBM Federal Systems did when they wrote the Shuttle software.

    1) Institute a no blame culture. It's about finding the bugs, not calling people stupid.

    2) Make sure you have clear instructions on what the code implements before you write it

    3) Document what variables are called and what they do.

    4) Do structured read throughs of code sections with the developer.

    5) When you find a bug a)Work out what it does b)Work out why the current system didn't find it in read through or testing c)re-scan the code base for similar examples.

    IBM FS was the model for CMM level 5 organizations. They did it mostly manually, without a SoA source code tracking system that can track who changed what lines and when in a code base. Shuttle can't fly without the software and it never ever failed. It was estimated to be about 10x the cost per executable LOC of most "normal" code.

    1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: For writing low error software...

      Institute a no blame culture. It's about finding the bugs, not calling people stupid.

      Well, that's any of Musk companies out at the first hurdle! The guy is smart and committed but also a known hairdryer and slave-driver.

    2. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: For writing low error software...

      All great until the well thrashed out dev plan has a stumbling point and the PHB tells everybody to ignore that step and move on to the next test. The problem is that the next step relies on the previous one having been checked out and working correctly. "Oh, we'll get past it. We have a deadline to get this done. A schedule to maintain.". ...... and I was actually working on rockets at the time so it WAS rocket science. I left due to lack of adult supervision.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Random

    How does ESA et al deal with "non terrestrial" objects?

    Also in the likely event of a close encounter whom do they contact?

  28. iainw

    didn't anyone think to pick up the phone and actually speak to someone at SpaceX?

    1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Went straight to voicemail…

  29. Charlie Clark Silver badge
    Facepalm

    The commercial exploitation of space…

    … is going to have more of this, because failure isn't an option will be replaced by what is the risk? and what is the cost?.

    Add to this, of course, that Starlink is yet another solution in search of a problem.

  30. Rudolph Hucker the Third
    Joke

    (COLREGs) say "turn right"

    In space, no-one can hear you scream "turn right".

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2019