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Management of unmanned space flights

The control room of the Phoenix spacecraft at the moment of receiving the signals about the successful landing on Mars
The control room of the Phoenix spacecraft at the moment of receiving the signals about the successful landing on Mars

Following the continuous activity of unmanned spacecraft in the solar system, there is a need for the development of a new management field that can sound somewhat futuristic and that is the management of unmanned space flights. There are indeed manned flights but they are made close to the earth and the reference is to the space station whose crews change from time to time and between 1969-1972 manned spacecraft were placed on the moon but these were short flights. Obviously, every flight has a defined work plan, but there is a fundamental difference between a manned flight and an unmanned flight, what's more, the unmanned flights are intended for different destinations in the solar system, hundreds of millions and billions of kilometers away from Earth. These are tasks that last for years. Why a similar thing, albeit on a much smaller scale? Operating a drone and on the other hand operating a manned aircraft. What is missing is the theoretical basis. Its importance is that it introduces an orderly and systematic work rationale that gives a broader perspective. The panoramic view enables more efficient decision-making.

The importance of the time factor

In terms of the flow of information, receiving the information is not immediate. The more distant the desired destination, a planet or its moon, is from the Earth, the more time it takes for the information to reach its destination, whether it is work instructions transmitted to the spacecraft or information transmitted back to the command center on Earth. The information transmitted to the moon takes 1 seconds to reach its destination and the information transmitted to the spacecraft orbiting Saturn takes an hour and a half. The duration of the broadcast is not fixed. It changes because these are moving bodies, since according to their nature they orbit the sun. Take for example the planet Jupiter, its distance from the sun is 3 million km. If it is in a straight line with the Earth, its distance from us is 800 million km. If it is on the other side of the sun, if the three bodies are in a straight line, its distance from us is 650 million km. Artificial intelligence components must be installed in the spacecraft launched to such distant destinations so that it can function as independently as possible. The scope of the artificial intelligence in the spacecraft is greater the more distant the target to which the spacecraft is launched.

The dynamics between the team members in the control center receive different characteristics for flights relatively close to the Earth and for distant flights. It is therefore desirable to examine characteristics of interpersonal dynamics among the team operating a spacecraft on Mars to the one operating a spacecraft operating near Jupiter or Saturn. As for the moon, due to its short distance from the earth. The monitoring of what is happening is almost in real time. The Russians landed on the moon two all-terrain vehicles Lonkhod 1 and Lonkhod 2 which operated on its surface for months. It is worth checking the archives of the Russian Space Agency for the work protocols of managing these missions, in order to learn future lessons from this.

It is about using tools that are not physically close to the decision makers. In terms of cognitive sensations, this is completely different from operating an unmanned tractor or a drone. At the end of the work, these tools can be returned for charging, refueling, repair or silence. To this day, the spaceships are considered a flight with a "one-way ticket". Where they go is where they stay. There is no minimal possibility of "feeling in the hands". Cognitive dissonance is inevitable. This is an insight that must be inculcated among those who are destined to operate these spacecraft.


In the last 5 years, two rover Spitit and Opportunity have been operated on Mars. Following this prolonged activity, it became clear that their operators were suffering from fatigue due to continuous shift work and working according to the Mars clock. The solution to go for is extended vacations for the vehicle operators and the preparation of a large number of teams. Based on the accumulated experience, it is necessary to determine the optimal working time of each operator before he starts to feel tired. It could be two weeks, three or at most a few days. Metrics must be established that will determine the optimal working time for each operator. This group of operators is different from the crew operating a submarine or manned spacecraft. These team members have to learn how to live with each other. Crew members operating unmanned spacecraft return home at the end of their shift. In this sense, the work is more relaxed. There are no tensions that accompany a group of people living together in a closed space. Most likely, among the team members operating an unmanned spaceship, their own organizational culture is developing. For this purpose, it is useful to learn from the cumulative experience of dynamics in small groups.

Characterization of flight modes

In terms of the duration of the spacecraft's activity, there are two basic situations. One mode is all the activity until reaching the destination and the second mode is all the activity from the moment of arrival at the destination. If the spacecraft is planned to operate in orbit around the planet Jupiter, the first condition is the duration of the flight until reaching Jupiter. During this period, most of the equipment is bled to save energy and fuel. The only activity is running engines to perform maneuvers and periodic excitation of the research equipment to test systems. The operation team during this period is minimal. The control system becomes alive from the moment the spacecraft reaches its destination. The spacecraft's systems are all activated, as are all the spacecraft's operating personnel, the supervisory and flight engineers, and the research personnel who collect the findings and set observation targets according to the nature of the information transmitted to Israel. All this while publishing the results in the professional journals and on the Internet. Naturally, online advertising is faster. The advantage of online publishing is the ability to receive immediate responses from researchers around the world and use their insights to make future observations. This is a first-rate intellectual interaction between different researchers. In any case, the increasing intensity of activity in the control center with the spacecraft arriving at its destination is changing the organizational culture there. A subject worthy of research in itself. Examining group dynamics of a group whose number of members is growing rapidly. All formal and informal communication receives new characteristics. Why is it similar, albeit in different intensities due to differences in content? For the manner of behavior in a command room during calm and during war.

From the moment the original work plan ends, it is possible to go in new directions, depending on the amount of fuel in the spacecraft and its power sources. If the spacecraft is orbiting a planet, it is possible to continue observing it while determining new observation targets, it is possible to crash the spacecraft on any target in this planetary environment to obtain close-up photographs in extremely high resolutions or penetrate the atmosphere to obtain as much information as possible from maximum depths until it burns up. Another option is to focus on one or two research objectives due to surprising discoveries. The Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn for 5 years discovered that one of the moons, Enceladus - a small moon with a diameter of 500 km - emits geysers of water, which raised thoughts about the presence of an underground ocean. With the extension of the Cassini mission, it was decided that the spacecraft would make several passes at a minimal distance from the ground, 25 km. Obviously, photographs from such a short distance are a feast for geologists. Each spacecraft is launched with a reserve supply of fuel in its tanks. Planning a large stock of fuel requires matching a suitable launch vehicle and the basic question that is asked is cost. There are launch vehicles capable of carrying a maximum load of hundreds of kilograms and the largest can carry a load weighing tens of tons. You must therefore choose the appropriate launch vehicle in terms of the weight of the cargo and the price of the launch.

Training of operation teams

The operation of off-road vehicles moving on planets or their moons is different from the operation of off-road vehicles on Earth for the reason that the driving style is different. Special teams must be trained for this. These are not vehicles moving at a speed of tens of kilometers per hour or more, but tens or hundreds of meters. It is very slow driving that requires a lot of patience. From a practical point of view, what happens is that instructions are transmitted to a vehicle that is, for example, on Mars, the signals take several minutes and sometimes several hours to reach it, the vehicle carries out the instructions and transmits back signals that the action has been carried out or any other group of signals such as, for example, photographs it has taken and so on. The greater the information transmitted to Israel, the more time is required for its reception, decoding and retransmission of new action instructions. This involves a lot of tension in the control center since the SUV may encounter unexpected difficulties. Let's not forget that these are vehicles that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Any failure requires the design of a new spacecraft and it is not certain that budgets will be approved for this purpose.

When choosing the operating teams, a lot of thought is required in choosing people whose character is suitable for this type of driving. The entire decision-making process for selecting and training drivers of this type is completely different from recruiting and training people to serve as drivers of national SUVs. When the Russians designed the Lunkhod 1 and Lonkhod 2 lunar vehicles, people who had never been drivers before were chosen to prevent a mundane driving orientation in advance.

How to operate the spacecraft

A normal car, if a malfunction occurs in it, it is brought to a garage or a hangar or inspected, the thing that needs repair is repaired and sometimes parts are replaced. A spacecraft moving in space or a vehicle operating on Mars, for example, cannot be returned to Israel for renovations. This is a one-way flight only. You have to work with what you have. Every decision-making must have a particularly creative potential. Find ad hoc solutions as needed. Find an unconventional use for the spacecraft's equipment. Each spacecraft moving towards the distant planets is equipped with two antennas. A low gain antenna that operates close to the earth and its signal transmission rate is low and a high gain antenna that operates at large distances from the earth and its signal transmission rate is high. The high gain antenna of the Galileo spacecraft that was launched towards Jupiter transmitted at a rate of tens of thousands of bits per second and the low gain antenna at a rate of tens of bits per second. A malfunction occurred in this spaceship and the praise antenna did not deploy at all. The only option open to the spacecraft operators was to use the low gain antenna. Special programs were written for this purpose. The rate at which signals penetrated the country was very low. The success was more than impressive. The spacecraft completed 70% of its mission and operated beyond the time it was planned for. All this, when the spacecraft was hundreds of millions of kilometers away from Earth.

Another example is the Spirit, one of the all-terrain vehicles operating on Mars. Each of these two vehicles has 6 wheels and each of them has its own drive. One of the front wheels of this vehicle got stuck and it was no longer possible to move forward. The solution found for this is movement using the rear wheels and driving backwards. Kind of driving forward in reverse gear.

Database of fault types

An integral part of spacecraft design is the installation of backup systems, although not for every item. An essential consideration in installing backup systems is costs. Therefore, the planning is done in such a way that the minimum lifespan of the spacecraft as a whole and of its systems is essential to fulfill the mission. If the spaceship survives and a new operating plan can be installed when the original work date is over, what good. A database should be established of possible malfunctions that spacecraft may encounter. What is the probability that a malfunction of a certain type will occur, at what stage of the flight it may occur and giving suggestions for correcting the situation. Unforeseen failures may occur during the activity. There is no practical way to predict any kind of action. The Spirit got stuck in a dune. The solution found for this is to drive the vehicle backwards, a process that lasts several weeks. It was a slow movement at a rate of several centimeters per day. This information should be characterized and installed in the fault database in case it occurs again. This information is essential not only for the current vehicle, but also for future launches.

End of mission

If you decide to end the spacecraft's activity after one or more extensions of the original plan of action, the obvious question is when do you do it? There can always be a feeling among the researchers that maybe if they continue a little longer, they will find a sensational discovery that will change the order of the world, and there is no end to it. This type of decision depends on two factors. One factor is costs. Every day of operation costs a lot of money which is essential for other programs. In aggregate, the extension of the mission may affect the start date of new programs. The second factor is material fatigue not only of the spacecraft, but also of the people operating it. The feeling that they can't do it anymore and that they have exhausted themselves to the end. Every day is more of the same. An inevitable feeling that other avenues must be turned to.

At the end of the research program, a scientific, technological and personal lessons learned report must be prepared. Lessons must be learned from both failures and successes.

4 תגובות

  1. The people can be brought back from their new tasks and careers to operate the old technology themselves or to train a new generation of operators, depending on the possibilities.

    There are always people who were little geniuses in their childhood and specialized in the technology of that time and they may remember it even decades later. So with electrical circuits from radio tubes and so with programming for ancient operating systems. Dinkota's version is not forgotten so quickly.

  2. to Lawrence
    I was a teenager and I'm also old (a little) and I write these things from my life experience
    The process of creating a spacecraft and launching it is not a concert of one person but a large group
    A lot of people. And this is where statistics and the law of large numbers work.
    Let's start with the fact that the planners are not young people in their twenties, but have learned something in their lives and have also accumulated
    experience in their work and it takes time (a good few years) we will continue with the fact that most people are not "stuck"
    in their service. Either they changed jobs or advanced further to a more senior position and time also takes its toll
    And if you are not in the project and "live" it, faster than you think you forget a lot of small details
    Also, there is a small budgetary issue at play here, that no one is willing to finance people (and many) who will wait patiently for 20 years
    but sends them to other missions and you bring them back from there...
    So in the end, not too much, if any, of the original team remained...
    And you have to train a new team of (young) people and here it ignites all the problems I mentioned

  3. To me:

    People involved in astronomy do not stop working at the age of 40
    It's like saying that you don't take into account that the person responsible for sending
    will die and no one will be able to replace him

  4. A topic that the article did not touch on
    One of the biggest problems is the preservation of knowledge about the operation of the spacecraft
    A spacecraft sent on missions to the edge of the solar system and even beyond makes its way for 15 to 20 years
    At this time, a generation of people changes on the face of the earth
    That is to say, most of those who designed and built the spaceship are no longer in the same technological position or simply are
    Retired because of their age. And the generation that has to operate the spaceship when it reaches its destination has to act based on "books" and it doesn't really know all the "little tricks".
    And in addition to that, the spacecraft is built based on the best technological knowledge of the day when it was "designed" and that is several years before the launch... and when it reaches its destination (20 years later) several technological generations have changed along the way
    And it is a difficult attempt to train people to use old technologies (try to teach young people today to use a teleprinter or to write commands in DOS to the computer) also the rudiments of the old technology are not clear to him
    (advantages and disadvantages, possibilities and limitations) as one who "grew up" within this technology. (Someone knows today
    to build an electronic circuit based on radio frequency?)
    And these problems also need to be solved when the spacecraft reaches its destination.

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