Jeffrey LewisDART Mishap Report

When NASA’s DART satellite bumped into another spacecraft during an attempted a “proximity operation”—think the docking sequence to The Blue Danube Waltz in 2001: A Space Odyssey , only clumsy—some folks were pretty embarrased.

As usually happens with a high profile failure, NASA convened convenes a blue-ribbon panel of graybeards … oh you get the idea (see the Mars Orbiter and X-43) .

This time, though, the NASA marked the DART Mishap Investigation Board report “sensitive, but Unclassified” marking “due to certain ITAR considerations.”

One wonders what ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) item would be compromised by public disclosure of the report or why a redacted report couldn’t be issued.

Michael Katz-Hyman has, by the way, a paper on proximity operations in the forthcoming INESAP Bulletin that deals at some length with the public policy challenges suggested by the DART mishap:

This case illustrates a subtle, but extremely important fact of operations in space. When something goes wrong it may take days or even months before you know what happened and why (in some cases you may never know). The main space surveillance networks run by the US and Russian governments are not perfect, there are large gaps in the number of sensors in the southern hemisphere and many times satellite orbital data is not updated for days.

For DART and MULBCOM, both owned by the United States and being carefully monitored, these may be a manageable problems. But, as more nations launch satellites into space and space agencies and militaries look at proximity operations to inspect or repair those satellites how do we avoid international incidents in space? Will the increase in competition for key orbital slots result in a more crowded environment and a higher likelihood of collisions? Are there methods to ensure safe “driving” distances for satellites so that the increase in close proximity operations does not lead consequential misunderstandings in space?

Michael and I will be hanging next week at the Space Security Working Group in one my favorite cities, Montreal. I’ll make sure Arcade Fire remains in heavy rotation on the iPod.

Late Update: A “space realist wonk” writes in with two helpful observations:

DART isn’t the first investigation of a “high profile failure” to run into ITAR restrictions. The X-43A hypersonic vehicle “mishap” occured on June 2, 2001. A draft report by the investigation board was submitted nine months later, but the report was not finally “approved” by NASA’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance until May 2003 and final release didn’t occur until July 23, 2003.

When the report was finally released, 37 of the 62 pages were omitted as “Export Controlled.” This included the chapters entitled “Finding, Root Cause, Contributing Factors, Recommendations” and “Significant Observations, Anomalies, Recommendations.”

That said, the executive summary did provide a high-level discussion of the key contributing factors (mostly related to bad modeling), and corrective actions were taken and the final two X-43A flights in 2004 were judged successes—although the results ultimately didn’t convince NASA that a major hypersonics breakthrough was at hand and a follow-on X-43C program was cancelled.

Our friend then added:

I’d guess the delay in releasing the DART mishap report may be especially disappointing for Zhang Quihua and … colleagues at Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT). I’m sure they’d want to cite DART resulsts in a follow-up to the HIT paper presented last week in Orlando.

That paper was titled, The guidance method of differential game for space vehicle rendezvous under target maneuvering based on orbital elements…

Comments

  1. Max Postman (History)

    If you’re making a Canadian indie rock playlist for the trip, you should also check out Wolf Parade. Similar sound, extremely good.

  2. Allen Thomson (History)

    > The main space surveillance networks run by the US and Russian governments are not perfect, there are large gaps in the number of sensors in the southern hemisphere and many times satellite orbital data is not updated for days.

    Which has always struck me as curious. Space surveillance hardware and operations—e.g., NAVSPASUR (or whatever it’s called now), 1-meter telescopes, maybe a couple of higher-capability radars—are pretty cheap in the grand scheme of things. The US could have built such in Australia but hasn’t chosen to do so. I tentatively conclude that it’s not been thought to be worth the modest cost.

Pin It on Pinterest