UNIT AND COMMA ISSUES FOR NASA
DO UNITS DRIVE THE PROBLEM OF LOW MARTIAN ATMOSPHERIC PRESSURE AND EARTH-LIKE WEATHER?
On my page about Martian Dust Devils, I speculate about whether is is possible that somebody who designed the pressure instruments on our landers screwed up on the units. Does this also sound crazy? As MSNBC reported, "the Mars Climate Orbiter, which... disappeared just as it arrived at Mars... in 1999. NASA later released the story that the probe was lost because some low-level workers mixed up English and metric units for rocket thrust. Blaming the foul-up in units was a partial misrepresentation: To save money, NASA had deleted staffing levels to double-check work, assuming instead that all the workers would make no mistakes."
The Mars Climate Orbiter was intended to enter orbit at an altitude of 140.5–150 km (460,000-500,000 ft.) above Mars. But Lockheed Martin, the NASA Contractor, used imperial units (pounds-seconds) instead of the metric system. This caused the spacecraft to dip to 57 km (190,000 ft.). It was destroyed by atmospheric stresses and friction at this low altitude. Evidently, though surface pressure/atmospheric density for Mars is supposed to be very low, even at 35.98 miles high, there is still enough air to bust up a probe at a slower entry speed than would be used on Earth (velocity required for a circular orbit of Mars is only 3.4 km/sec compared to the 7.7 km/sec of a space shuttle in orbit around Earth).
So maybe somebody failed to double check the units again on the two types of pressure instruments used by the 4 landers that took pressure readings. In fact, many countries use a comma where most Americans use a decimal point. This includes Finland, which developed the 26-gram pressure sensor for the Phoenix lander. With international staffs and instrumentation vendors, commas rather than decimal points provide more opportunity for critical errors. Such an error here could cause a world that might support higher life to look much too hostile for that purpose without radical, expensive, and very long term terraforming efforts.
Countries using Arabic numerals with decimal point
Nations that are involved with space research where a dot is used to mark the radix point include the United States, Australia, Canada (English speaking) People's Republic of China, India, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and Switzerland.
Nations that are involved with space research where a decimal comma is used to mark the radix point include Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada (French Speaking), Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland (where the pressure sensor for the Phoenix lander was built), Hungary, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and Ukraine. Where scientists intermingle in space programs, there is the potential for human error in interpreting results or planning when different methods are being used to express the same numbers.