NASA Oppy’s Dust Storm, Titanic’s Iceberg – Lessons on Black Swans

NASA Oppy’s Dust Storm, Titanic’s Iceberg – Lessons on Black Swans

As a student, visited the lab where they invented GPS (yes, satellite navigation). The Applied Physics Lab of the Johns Hopkins University is one of the most eminent labs in the world. Without APL, we may not have Intel Corp as Gordon Moore spent time in the lab before he left to co-found Intel. Of course, without Intel, you may not be reading this note, as microprocessors created by Intel largely enabled Bill Gates to invent the Personal Computing (PC) industry via Microsoft. The rest is history: before Windows, computing was largely an enterprise machine, designed for offices and not homes for personal uses.

I had gone to meet a researcher in APL on a paper he wrote about making circuits that could survive extreme radiation expected in the space environment. I had read about matter and antimatter annihilation while in FUTO as an undergraduate student. I was just curious on the possibilities of creating such designs.

(The ways such circuits are designed are totally different from the ways typical circuits used in consumer electronics are engineered. Also the manufacturing process is different. They are extremely reliable and also overly expensive, and never built for huge mass production. Mainly, the markets are mainly military and governments.)

So, when I read today that NASA has officially pronounced Opportunity rover dead, my mind went to that moment. NASA engineers have frozen attempts to communicate with Oppy after more than 1,000 radio signals went unanswered. Oppy did great – discovered water and drove over 45 km, more than any other machine on Mars for the 15 earth years it lived there.

After falling silent eight months ago during a severe dust storm that swept across the Red Planet, NASA’s Mars Opportunity rover has been officially declared dead.

NASA made the announcement Wednesday during an emotional media briefing at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The agency said it had ended its efforts to communicate with Opportunity after sending more than 1,000 radio signals its way, including some just last night.

“I was there yesterday and I was there with the team as these commands went out into the deep sky, and I learned this morning that we had not heard back,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in the briefing. “Opportunity remains silent.”

But the news is what killed Oppy. It was not radiation which NASA handled by making radiation-hardened circuits and manufacturing systems. It was not energy flash from matter-antimatter annihilation. Oppy died when an unprecedented dust storm covered its solar panels, robbing it of power. That was it – once that happened, it became a piece of sand! Every electronics without power is nothing but sand (yes, silica). I am not sure any NASA model had expected dust to be the killer of Oppy just as the designers of Titanic never expected the iceberg to bring the heralded unsinkable ship to sink.

What is your business black swan?

Nigeria’s Gray Lizard; America’s Black Swan


NB: The debate on LinkedIn posits that Oppy case is not a good example of black swan since it lived well enough beyond the originally expected 90 earth days. Yet, while in business, a 150-year company can still experience black swan if it did not plan for a very rare risk scenario, which eventually happens. Nonetheless, I want to add this update.

Lehman Brothers lived long enough (more than 150 years) before it went into bankruptcy and planned for the thing that killed it, but it did not plan deep enough. My thinking on Oppy was NASA knew there was a dust storm risk but they did not plan for the “unprecedented” one that took the life of Oppy.

 It is a sound engineering principle: you have spent $400m to build a machine and covered 99% of the risk. But if the 1% remaining risk happens, you go with it. Of course, you can fix it but doing so will be expensive and complex. Perhaps, it could have made Oppy an Incredible Hulk to rise from a dust storm within hours while battery was still alive!

Yes, possibly, Lehman Brothers knew it could go down if what happened in 2007 should happen but avoiding it would have been extremely challenging. Black Swan does not mean absence of knowing the risk and most times few can fix that risk if presented with options to do so ahead. “Unprecedented” dusk storm is a black swan which rarely occurs (I reasoned) but for Oppy it happened.

Of course I could have gotten it all wrong – that is why I have this update.


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