On October 11th, 2016 we learned about

Building better spacecrafts with compromise and collaboration

Cooperation is something we try to teach our children, often forgetting how much adults need to work at it as well. In public, we usually only get to witness the rewards of compromise and teamwork— when the rocket lands on the boat, the the spacecraft orbits the planet, or the lander drives all over Mars. We don’t usually think too much about how much effort, listening and hurt feelings can be involved, in at places full of people smart enough to make the aforementioned list of accomplishments happen. Fortunately, those folks can also be smart enough to figure out ways to make these compromises easier and more effective, even in ways that can be useful to those of us not sending cool things into space.

The stinging feeling of scaling back

Long before its mission to Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft‘s design was facing a number of problems. Budget cuts were forcing engineers to scale back the complexity of the craft, starting with removing motors and servos for individual instruments. This meant that as Cassini orbited Saturn, it would not be able to point different instruments in different directions, and instead be limited to collecting data from its current orientation and trajectory. For scientists, this meant that they’d have to wait in line for their instrument to be pointed where they needed it, such as at the planet’s rings versus one of the moons also being studied, rather than being able to gather data on every orbit. This was a huge blow to research teams’ expectations, and sorting out the logistics of the design, plus the emotions of the crestfallen scientists, took some time. It was a situation where everyone had to compromise, even if nobody liked it.

With that experience in mind, the planning of the Juno mission to Jupiter was handled a bit differently. Unfortunately, the available resources had not increased dramatically, but the design process was. Early on, data storage was identified as a scarce resource, as the spacecraft was slated to carry only around four gigabytes of RAM, less than your average laptop uses for software, and much less than even a cheap smartphone offers for storage. For all the measurements, readings and photos Juno was going to collect, designers and scientists needed to somehow agree on how to get their work done in what most would consider a sub-optimal arrangement.

Sharing stress, and solutions

The solution seemed to be to get everyone working on compromising from the start, rather than waiting to feel like they had to give something up. All the various teams were brought in, from instrument designers to trajectory planners, so that they could all work on finding the right balance together. This obviously required that they come in ready to find a middle ground together, but getting everyone contributing to a solution early in the design process seemed to help avoid the emotional fallout experienced by the Cassini teams. As goals were shared, small conflicts were identified and fixed before they became bigger problems, with ideas being shared in multiple directions, rather than as set of sequential requests.

For Juno’s data storage issue, the answer proved to be to put a bit more resources in how data was transmitted back to Earth, which would help the operators of all the different instruments in the long run. A key component to this plan was using larger satellite dishes to receive data, since a 230-foot dish can receive transmissions at 25 kilobytes-per-second, versus the 3.75 kilobyte-per-second rate of the 112-foot dishes that would normally be used. Faster transmissions meant that teams weren’t competing for storage space as much, since it could be transferred home that much easier.

Not every project will benefit from this kind of collaboration, of course. The Cassini spacecraft, in fact, involved bigger teams and was just more complicated than Juno, which would make managing wide-ranged collaboration a bit more difficult. But there are possible lessons to be applied elsewhere, such as getting invested parties together to head off possible issues, rather than waiting until they become bigger problems to get untangled. Even if compromise isn’t often enjoyable, this approach seems like more energy can be spent on solving problems, rather than being disappointing by them.

Oh, and of course, everything is made better by faster download speeds.

Source: How Do We Beam Pictures Back From Jupiter? It Takes A Village by Maggie Koerth-Baker, FiveThirtyEight

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