back to article Lonely bloke in chem suit fuels Mars orbiter

The European Space Agency (ESA) has released a nice snap of a rather lonely figure in a chemical suit fuelling the ExoMars mission's Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), due to launch between 14–25 March 2016 from Baikonur Cosmodrome. Man in chemical suit fuelling the TGO. Pic: ESA Easy does it. Pic: TAS-F / Y. Le Marchand ESA …

  1. Peter Simpson 1

    Have they checked that all the bolts are present and tight?'_accident.jpg

  2. Alistair

    Better yet,

    Have they checked the unit conversions on the project.

    <sorry, Beagle>

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Better yet,

      NASA were the ones who stoofed into the surface of Mars when they got their units mixed up.

      1. cray74

        Re: Better yet,

        NASA were the ones who stoofed into the surface of Mars when they got their units mixed up.

        You say NASA, but the root cause was that NASA's contractor who incorrectly wrote the software. NASA specified metric to Lockheed Martin for the Mars Climate Orbiter; NASA wrote navigational software expecting metric; Lockheed signed the contract and accepted the software interface specification calling for metric. Lockheed then delivered results in US customary units.

        Some blame does fall on NASA in that two of its navigators were reporting that the MCO a bit off course earlier in the flight after trajectory correction maneuvers (TCMs) 2 and 3. After TCM-4, there was a week's period where calculations were clearly showing MCO was coming in below the target 226km altitude, with estimates of 150 to 170km - which is a huge error by NASA's navigational standards. 24 hours before orbital insertion, updated calculations were showing a pass as low as 110km, and the MCO could only handle 80km at the worst. The flight plan offered a chance for TCM-5, but the MCO team held a meeting and decided the situation wasn't bad enough for that.

        Then MCO buzzed Mars at 57km, supplementing an out-of-the-envelope aerobraking maneuver with an unscheduled lithobraking maneuver. The root of that error is Lockheed, though, not NASA.

        Have they checked that all the bolts are present and tight?

        Heh, those stands do bring to mind the NOAA mess.

        But, sidebar question: two of the early comments on this thread regard early 2000s goofs by Lockheed Martin Aerospace division, it's unplanned shock testing of a NOAA weather satellite and the incineration of the Mars Climate Orbiter. What do either of those have to do with a spacecraft built by Thales Alenia and launched on a Rooskie rocket?

        1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

          Re: Better yet,

          @cray74: Upvoted because it's everything a good post should be. Would like to be able to give another ten upvotes or so for the "unscheduled lithobraking maneuver".

        2. Steven 1

          Re: Better yet,

          "supplementing an out-of-the-envelope aerobraking maneuver with an unscheduled lithobraking maneuver"

          Yeah I've done that on KSP as well, poor Jeb, he's still up there :o(

    2. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

      Re: Better yet,

      AFAIK ESA is an all-metric outfit... however, Adam Goren is right: all cool things are in metrics

  3. M7S

    "One lonely bloke in a chem suit could fuel a rocket"

    Crikey. Is it Friday afternoon already?

    Cue the "zip me in after a curry" jokes.

    1. MyffyW Silver badge

      Thursday night, everythings fine, except you've got that look in your eye....

      There was a young lady called Myffy,

      Drank C-Stoff and got herself squiffy,

      It's a hell of a ride,

      For a putative bride,

      But as refreshment decidedly iffy.

  4. Tezfair

    Holy Hell

    Bet your spell checker was having a melt down as you wrote this article.

  5. Known Hero

    kind of concerned had there been a spillage that his ankles looked somewhat unprotected with just a loose covering.

    please may we have a health and safety Icon

  6. x 7

    could've been worse.....1,2-Dimethylhydrazine for instance

    1. Lester Haines (Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

      Cancer ahoy

      Lovely stuff.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: Cancer ahoy

        Russians blow that all over their launchpads?

        "Ok Gordon, fill the Monomethylhydrazine into the little hole over there!"

        1. Tom 7 Silver badge

          Re: Cancer ahoy

          If you can pour it into a shot glass then students will have been drinking it for years!

          1. imanidiot Silver badge

            Re: Cancer ahoy

            When it comes to lovely chemicals I'd highly recommend the "stuff I won't work with" series bij Derek Lowe;

            Start with: "Sand won't save you this time"

            Highly entertaining stuff, even for those of us with no background in chemicals. If you've had basic high-school level chemistry lessons you'll understand enough for it to be highly cringe/laughter inducing.

            ---> I'll be wearing mine, thank you.

      2. x 7

        Re: Cancer ahoy

        "Lovely stuff."

        I didn't realise you were a chemist Lester

        not many would have known that little problem without looking it up......

        happily thats one beastie I never had to source or handle

  7. Efros

    Nitrogen containing compounds

    are generally interesting chemically, too much of an urge to get back to N2 to play nice, however.

    1. x 7

      Re: Nitrogen containing compounds

      as a general comment, I've personally known too many people killed, blinded or otherwise injured as the result of getting nitrogen chemistry wrong

      and too many plants this country alone we had three in the 1980's in just a few years: Fine Organics, Wendstone, Mostyn Chemicals. All blown to pieces

  8. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

    Surely there's a simple solution to this. Rocket fuel is dangerous. It's messy, and expensive to deal with. And some of them even eat their way through the fuel tanks.

    Surely the only possible answer can be Project Orion. Totally safe. If we use only the finest neutron bombs that money can buy and launch from somewhere like Croydon, who could object? The bonus being that we could have a space hotel by simply cutting the foundations of a local Travelodge, bunging a big old metal plate underneath, and whoosh!

    1. Fibbles

      Is the Croydon Travel Lodge designed to withstand that kind of 'g'? It could just end up as mankind's first orbiting rubble pile. Though I will admit that the difference between something from Croydon and a pile of detritus is not an easy distinction to make.

      1. Chris G


        Croydon has never stopped going downhill since they built the Whitgift Centre in the '60s, I wonder how much MMH it would take to launch all of it to rendezvous with Mars?

        Highly reactive nasty chemicals are often handy for rockets, less so for humans, I bet that guy fueling the probe has high insurance premiums.

      2. PNGuinn

        "difference between something from Croydon and a pile of detritus"

        Did you mean Slough?

        Hmmm ... a most salubrious establishment maybe, but I can think of a better places to hold an orbiting party ... especially one that's likely to go on for a while.

    2. lee harvey osmond

      Good Lord. I'm reading your excellent post and wondering if someone has restored an unauthorised tape backup of my brain.

      Neutron bombs? No, no, a thousand tiny selectable-yield H-bombs all alike.

      And if you proposed taking off from Croydon, I'd object: that's close enough to where I live to mess up my TV reception.

      1. cray74

        And if you proposed taking off from Croydon, I'd object: that's close enough to where I live to mess up my TV reception.

        Pfft, another NIMBY. Think of the upside: most employers give fallout days off.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Travelodge <> Hotel.

      Even in space.

      1. andy k O'Croydon


        Easy on the Croydon slurs, people.

        1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

          Re: Oy!

          Oh, they are easy

        2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: Oy!

          Easy on the Croydon slurs, people.

          Surely it's only a slur if it's not true.

  9. s. pam

    Reminds me of the time....

    We had the 35ft IOR sailboat I crewed on up on stands at Berkeley Marina to strip the bottom and repaint it before the start of the racing season. Bloke from the marina walks up, looks at the paint and says "Are any of you guys planning to father children?" We kind of stood there thinking, W-T-F over?

    He then quipped, "Using that stuff you'll never father children".

    And I never have (to my knowledge!!)

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Reminds me of the time....

      I never painted a boat but my looks ain't so good ...

      1. hplasm

        Re: I never painted a boat but my looks ain't so good ...

        Perhaps a nice coat of paint...?

    2. x 7

      Re: Reminds me of the time....

      ""Using that stuff you'll never father children"

      tri-N-Butyltin oxide at a guess.

      He had a good point.

  10. Anonymous Coward

    Just skimmed the article

    This is powered by soup made from magic mushrooms??

    (Sorry, all those big words early on have made my head spin and I lost the plot)

  11. Gene Cash Silver badge

    Dang. That's an interesting angle with the mushrooms. I thought MMH was a completely synthetic chemical, and would have never figured to be a natural decomp product like that.

    1. Lester Haines (Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

      Killer mushrooms

      Yes, it surprised me too. Interesting stuff.

      1. choleric

        Re: Killer mushrooms

        So if the rocket explodes we get a genuine mushroom cloud?

      2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: Killer mushrooms

        100% green fuel!

  12. cray74

    Properly Dangerous Rocket Fuel

    Chlorine trifluoride is a more powerful oxidizer than oxygen, so it will oxidize many oxygenated compounds otherwise reluctant to burn: concrete, glass, asbestos, water, and water-containing substances like rocket technicians.

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Properly Dangerous Rocket Fuel

      I'm guessing this stuff is designed from theory - someone works out what they want and how to make it and then gets on with it.

      I cant imagine making this stuff by pouring shit into spirally glassware and laughing deeply is going to have a low enough mortality rate to get very far.

    2. Yag

      Re: Properly Dangerous Rocket Fuel

      Very close to the original :

      "(Chlorine trifluoride) is, of course, extremely toxic, but that's the least of the problem.It is hypergolic with every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured. It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water —with which it reacts explosively."

      Ignition! by J.D. Clark, a very good read even if you're not really into chemistry :)

  13. x 7

    "I cant imagine making this stuff by pouring shit into spirally glassware and laughing deeply is going to have a low enough mortality rate to get very far."

    Well actually.......this hydrazine rocket technology goes back to the 1930's in Germany and I strongly suspect that to a large extent the research was fairly empirical, with many resultant mishaps. Remember they had plenty of research workers whose lives didn't matter. Or rather, didn't matter to the Germans.

    Nowadays things are done more safely - partly due to those who died

    In another thread recently someone quoted how many had died during the V2 manufacturing and research projects

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Damn Germans.

      There is no Rammstein song called "HYDRAZIN" but there well should be.

      Or else, russian punk metal maybe?

    2. Jos V

      x 7. On wiki, if you believe everything you read there: " According to a 2011 BBC documentary, the attacks resulted in the deaths of an estimated 9,000 civilians and military personnel, while 12,000 forced laborers and concentration camp prisoners were killed producing the weapons."

  14. Paul

    Why am I reminded of "things I won't work with"?

  15. Fr. Ted Crilly Bronze badge

    tch call that a propellent

    Inhibited red fuming nitric acid & Unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine now that a mans fuel! you Knoe when you've been tango'd with that devils poison

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: tch call that a propellent

      Phah, inhibited RFNA. Try handling the uninhibited stuff.

  16. Stevie


    French satellites are powered by hypergolic mushrooms?

    How high can you get on one tankful?

  17. Ugotta B. Kiddingme

    just read the headline and thought

    "Wow, I bet the callout fee for that is INSANE."

    Then read the article to confirm it hadn't launched yet...

  18. John H Woods

    maybe the fuelling should be performed by

    this guy

  19. Mark 85 Silver badge

    The photo...

    I wonder if it was a remote camera or if the photographer was right there.. maybe with some comrades having a celebratory drink because they weren't doing the fueling?

    I see only one hose... a blue one. Is that air for him to breathe or is that the fuel line?

    1. MajorTom

      Re: The photo...

      Probably air, though "Harry" Tuttle might be able to attach it to the liquid waste system.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Or unleaded?

  21. John Robson Silver badge


    With so many rocket fuel stories should the editors be linking to the rather excellent book "Ignition", as recommended by a fellow commentard a few stories ago?

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: Ignition...

      I'm pretty sure Ignition! is out of print now, although there is a pdf floating around, and I hear there's an ebook version if you look hard enough...

      1. Lester Haines (Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

        Re: Re: Ignition...

        For those with very deep pockets:

      2. John Robson Silver badge

        Re: Ignition...

        It may well be out of print - only took me a few minutes to find the pdf last time..

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re. Ignition

    There was I thinking that "Project Orion" (ie nuclear pulse jet) was dangerous.

    The big reason other than the CTBT why this was stopped was the risk of the small nuclear pulse units (basically itty bitty nuclear warheads) getting into the wrong hands.

    Making them on board using berkelium to lower the yield and also make them essentially fail-safe because the half life is so short is doable, in fact I sent some notes about it to NASA and other agencies along with the schematics and calculations.

    Essentially my modified design plates about a 250um thick layer of BkFx onto the outside of the normally sub-critical plutonium spheroid, and uses a modification I invented to overcome the need for a bulky and dangerous Po+Be initiator which is the subject of a patent search.

    Also because the lasers are what ignites the explosive lenses if something goes wrong nothing happens instead of a fizzle or at worst a <10t yield which is well within the capabilities of a properly designed refractory ejection tube.

    The pulse unit I designed is about the size of a coffee cup and despite this has a 220t maximum yield (ie enough for about an Isp of ten times a Saturn V)

    Should be enough to get to Mars in about 8 months or less, with the engines running at 25% of maximum power detonating about one pulse unit every 5 minutes with a total fuel usage about equal to 500 kilos of Pu.

    1. Conundrum1885

      Re: Re. Ignition

      Hi, am hesitant to mention *how* I overcame the need for a neutron initiator, but the method I have invented is completely novel and also guarantees that it won't go fizzle unless both systems work correctly.

      Can someone who has clearance please contact me via "unverfied_third_party" (you know how, check database) as its important at this point to establish priority and ensure it doesn't get into the wrong hands due to inadequate encryption/etc. Its on an airgapped machine at the moment and backed up on A4 as well just in case.

      Also apologies for earlier babbling about ZPMs, essentially it will work but not with technology we will have for at least 20-30 years.

  23. TeeCee Gold badge

    ...a "crushable structure" designed to absorb the force of the final impact.

    Let me guess. they've strapped an old Sinclair C5 to the bottom of it......right?

  24. Francis Vaughan


    For all the hand wringing about MMH, one should remember that the venerable F-16 powers its APU with MMH. The ground crew need to refuel the planes if there has been an in-flight problem where the APU is needed. And accidents do happen refuelling. Apparently MMH bleaches shirts and stings eyes and skin. Then results is a week of daily hospital checkups.

  25. John Mangan

    Why . . .

    . . .are they fueling it a month before launch? Genuine question.

    There must be a fair bit of transporting and so on to do before it gets launched so do you really want it full of explosive, toxic crap all that time?

    1. hattivat

      Re: Why . . .

      The stuff is perfectly storeable (unlike most fuels typically used in rockets themselves), so no harm in this regard. It's also not explosive at all, as long as it does not come into contact with each other, which I assume the engineers went to great lengths to make sure won't happen.

      As for why it is done so much in advance, a satellite is typically given its last checkup and sanitization (there is a policy to protect space bodies from contamination with Earth bacteria, especially restrictive in case of a place where they could possibly survive, such as Mars), and encased in the fairing (along with filling said fairing with something neutral, often helium) long before it is launched. The main reason I think is that considering how finicky the whole "launching stuff into orbit on top of a giant can of explosives" stuff is, it's nice to have variable less to worry about on the final stretch of preparations.

    2. x 7

      Re: Why . . .

      "why. . .are they fueling it a month before launch? Genuine question."

      test fueling to make sure it doesn't leak

  26. hattivat

    I went into the comments section expecting to feel forced to respond to misconceptions of people surprised that not everything spacey can run on solar panels and coconut water. Instead I found references to one of my favorite books (Ignition!) and favorite blog posts (the "things I won't work with" stuff). I think I'm in love with this website and its commentards.

    1. John Mangan

      Welcome. . .

      . . .amongst the scatalogical and scabrous commentary there is a broad stream of knowledgable and informative content. It's the Registers main saving grace (IMHO).

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