NASA Equipment Failure: An Opportunity for AdaptabilityJune 21, 2023
The last remaining operational data recorder on NASA's Geotail spacecraft failed last year, ending a mission that has been gathering critical magnetosphere data for over three decades. But is this the true end of an era for the Geotail? With a rise in space exploration interest from the public and new missions in development, scientists may be able to seek other ways to collect this vital information as the need for adaptability in space exploration persists.
The End of the Geotail Mission
In July 1992, a collaborative project between the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and NASA, referred to as the Geotail mission, was launched. The goal – to study the Earth’s magnetosphere, the magnetic field that surrounds our planet. The Earth has the strongest magnetosphere amongst other rocky planets in our Solar System, and NASA explains that it “shields our home planet from harmful solar and cosmic particle radiation, as well as erosion of the atmosphere by the solar wind – the constant flow of charged particles streaming off the Sun.” It is largely due to this protective shield that life on Earth has evolved and thrived as it has, thus making research in this area crucial, as it brings insight into not only Earth’s livable space environment, but the very nature and origin of space across the universe.
Originally slated for a four-year run, the Geotail mission’s successful gathering of high-quality data granted it more time in operation, and it likely would have seen many more years in orbit had not both onboard data recorders failed. Data recorders are typically built to withstand UV radiation, extreme temperatures, pressurization, and the other harsh conditions of space. They gather and store data collected by satellite machinery through image compression, mass memory storage, formatting, and other functions to ensure data is accurately retrieved and secured until it can be accessed. Ground control teams tried to repair the Geotail’s data recorder issues remotely, but to no avail, thus ending the three decades-long mission late last year.
The Mechanics of Failure
With the complexity of space physics and technology, it is no surprise that missions can sometimes fail, and within the harsh landscape that exists outside Earth’s atmosphere, equipment can simply become faulty over time.
A recent example is seen with the New Shepard Mission, an astronaut shuttle and tourist craft being developed to make recreational space travel a reality. This spacecraft experienced an anomaly that halted its launch back in September 2022, SpaceNews.com states, as “there was a structural failure in the vehicle’s BE-3PM engine nozzle caused by temperatures that exceeded its design,” resulting in the safe initiation of the crew capsule to abort from the craft.
In April 2023, a malfunction also occurred within SpaceX's Starship, which made the news as the craft exploded shortly after its much-anticipated maiden launch. While the source of failure is still unknown, scientists are hoping to learn from the incident and move forward with another launch in the near future.
Mechanical failures are a part of the process in research and development, unfortunately, but can lead to new discoveries and methods of improvement for scientists to explore.
Failure Does Not Always Mean Unsuccessful
It is important to remember that malfunctions can sometimes be a blessing in disguise. For the New Shepard, it provided an opportunity to experience a real-life malfunction scenario that ended safely. This, in turn, generated more positive public interest in the tourist craft, as new registrants continue to sign up for future excursions, having renewed confidence in its safety mechanics. For the Geotail mission, the overall mission lasted 30 years and it was a tremendous success, contributing to information referenced in thousands of scientific journals and articles. Its decommission allows scientists to focus on what data they have and perhaps begin looking at more innovative methods for data collection in future missions.
The Future of Geotail Missions and Space Exploration
The end of the Geotail mission does not mean the end of magnetosphere research – and far from it. In addition to analyzing the stored data collected prior to Geotails’ decommissioning, scientists are looking at new, adjacent missions to launch and incorporating improved technology to address new research initiatives. Just recently, the James Webb telescope mission discovered one of the farthest known universes, the JD1, which was born a few million years after the Big Bang, LiveScience.com says, “when the universe was just 4% of its current age."
Other research into magnetospheres outside our Solar System discovered a radiation belt surrounding a distant dwarf star, making it the first ever seen. In comparison, it is very much like the field seen around Jupiter but shines 10 million times brighter. Data gathered during the expansive Geotail mission helps to inform new missions like these and have paved the way for future space exploration.
Securing Your Career in Space
Within the organizational structure of NASA and other space-centric agencies, subject matter experts, specialists, and skilled technicians are all recruited to perform the highly technical jobs behind analyzing and managing the types of failures seen in research and development, which is why they seek educated professionals who can meet the demands of this field. Hands-on skills, prior technical experience, higher education, and networking within the field are all advantageous to aspiring space professionals looking for positions within these agencies.
At Capitol Technology University, we ensure our students graduate job-ready with real-world experience in the field. In addition to our industry-expert faculty, we have partnerships with NASA, the US Space Command, and other leading aviation and space agencies for the benefit of our students who are seeking networking and internship opportunities. Our Astronautical Engineering program is also one of our most popular tracks, routinely attracting new students and partners in education. Our state-of-the-art lab, the Space Flight Operations Training Center (SFOTC), provides training in spacecraft mission planning and execution, ground control, and using industry tools such as Satellite Tool Kit (SKT) and the General Mission Analysis Tool (GMAT). Our new ALPHA Observatory offers students hands-on experience with the equipment and software of real space telescopes, advancing the field of research by contributing to Maryland Space Consortium and NASA data collection initiatives. ALPHA recently discovered its first supernova!