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I remember hearing the story of a probe on the surface of a planet (maybe Venus) that was lost due to an incredible design flaw, and I'm looking for more details.

The probe had a dish antenna, and when the scientists learnt that a storm was coming they decided to protect the antenna by "folding" it (i.e. to turn it face down, I suppose), but only after doing it did they realize that at that point it was impossible for the probe to receive the signal to unfold it (or any other signal, for that matter), and so they basically lost it. Nobody had thought about the consequences of that operation. The point of the story was that the mistake wasn't made by the operator that sent the command, but rather by the designer that made such command available.

Now I'd like to have more details, but I can't find anything about this story. For example it is not mentioned in this article about the most expensive failed space missions of all time, or in any other article I've found, including the lists of missions to Venus and to Mars on Wikipedia. At this point I'm not even sure the story I remember is real.

Has anybody heard of such a story? What mission was it?

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    $\begingroup$ Not Venus. Nothing has lasted there long enough. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Aug 17 '20 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ A command error caused the loss of Phobos 1, but Mars, not landed 'and not due to antenna folding, so not writing as answer. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Aug 17 '20 at 2:26
  • $\begingroup$ Beagle 2 landed on Mars but couldn't receive communication because some solar panels didn't open, thus blocking the antenna. Doesn't match your description enough to post as an answer. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beagle_2 $\endgroup$ – Wiggo the Wookie Aug 17 '20 at 8:56
  • $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble At this point I think the episode I'm asking about has never really happened, but the Phobos 1 is close enough that it deserves an upvote if you make it an answer. $\endgroup$ – Fabio says Reinstate Monica Aug 21 '20 at 17:08
  • $\begingroup$ Does accidentally turning the spacecraft the wrong way count? If so, APL lost one of the STEREO spacecraft during a pre-solar transit practice maneuver. They lost contact because they rolled the spacecraft the wrong way on accident and then didn't escalate the issue to an emergency to request help from the DSN. By the time they did request help, it was too late. They have temporarily regained contact (heard a beacon tone) a few times but not successfully reoriented the spacecraft. $\endgroup$ – honeste_vivere Feb 24 at 14:47
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Mars and Earth are the only destinations humanity has sent probes where the following two conditions apply:

  • The destination has an atmosphere where storms can occur
  • The expected mission length is long enough that action to mitigate storm damage might be considered.

The primary concern from Martian storms appears to be the degradation of solar panel performance, from dust in the atmosphere during the storm, and from the lessening frequency of the Martian dust devils that could remove accumulated dust from the solar panels.

Dropping the storm requirement, as far as "Earth-transmitted commands causing loss of communication" goes, Viking 1 (Landed on Mars on July 20, 1976) may be a contender.

From Wikipedia: Viking 1:

The lander operated for 2245 sols (about 2306 Earth days or 6 years) until November 11, 1982, (sol 2600), when a faulty command sent by ground control resulted in loss of contact. The command was intended to uplink new battery charging software to improve the lander's deteriorating battery capacity, but it inadvertently overwrote data used by the antenna pointing software. Attempts to contact the lander during the next four months, based on the presumed antenna position, were unsuccessful.

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  • $\begingroup$ I've accepted this answer because it explains what planets met the conditions and what the hazards from storms can be, showing why the event I remember has likely never happened. At this point I think I simply remember something wrong. Anyway the Viking 1 incident is close enough: the probe had a problem, they sent a command to solve it, and it turned out to be a disaster. Still not really what I was thinking of, as this can be considered a bug, while the episode I recall involved a command that, though catastrophic, worked as intended. But, as I said, it probably never happened. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – Fabio says Reinstate Monica Aug 21 '20 at 17:04
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You may be thinking of the Galileo probe. The plan was for the high-gain antenna to stay closed while it did a early Venus flyby, then open up after using Earth for a gravitational assist, but the high-gain antenna failed to open properly. They were able to make use of a low-gain antenna to transmit most of what they wanted back to earth, but it did limit the mission

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    $\begingroup$ Seems to miss the key element of being commanded closed, then realization of oops. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Aug 17 '20 at 1:41
  • $\begingroup$ No, it can't be the Galileo probe. As @OrganicMarble said, the point is that a catastrophic command was given. In Galileo's case it was simply a mechanical failure. $\endgroup$ – Fabio says Reinstate Monica Aug 17 '20 at 1:53
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    $\begingroup$ As a result of the HGA failure Galileo's data rate dropped from >100 kbps to a maximum of 140 bps. There were not able to transmit most of what they wanted back to earth. The project scientist made a statement about the mission "addressing 70% of the original science objectives", but "addressing" and "achieving" are worlds apart. True, we learned quite a bit from Galileo, but if the HGA had properly deployed its science return would have been more like Cassini's. $\endgroup$ – Tom Spilker Aug 17 '20 at 23:16
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A real probe would have an emergency mode. If there was no communication at all for a given time interval, the probe would execute its routine for reetablishing communication.

There should be a routine for checking antenna status including unfolding it if neccessary.

It is a matter of good software design. But unfortunately despite all that carefull planing and testing of the software there might be some remaining bugs

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  • $\begingroup$ So, are you saying that there was no such mission, and that either I remember something wrong, or the source was unreliable? $\endgroup$ – Fabio says Reinstate Monica Aug 17 '20 at 9:00

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