In space, there are no Jiffy Lubes

Dr. Roy Spencer reports that AMSR-E shut down today, too much torque on the rotating element, and all it needs to keep going is a lube job.

AMSR-E Ends 9+ Years of Global Observations

by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.
UPDATE #1: See update at end.

The Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer for the Earth Observing System (AMSR-E) was automatically spun down to its designed 4 rpm safe condition last night after recent increases in the amount of power required to keep it spinning at its nominal 40 rpm were beginning to cause noticeable jitter in NASA’s Aqua satellite.

The instrument has over 480 pounds of spinning mass, and the lubricant in the bearing assembly gradually deteriorates over time. This deterioration has been monitored, and automatic shutdown procedures have been in place for years if the amount of torque required to keep AMSR-E spinning exceeded a certain threshold.

Starting about October 1, AMSR-E was causing yaw vibrations in the Aqua satellite attitude which were increasingly exceeding the +/- 25 arcsecond limits that are required by other instruments on the spacecraft. Last night, the 4.5 Newton-meter torque limit was apparently exceeded, and the instrument was automatically spun down to 4 rpm.

At this point it appears that this event likely ends the useful life of AMSR-E, which has been continuously gathering global data on a variety of parameters from sea ice to precipitation to sea surface temperature. It’s 9+ year lifetime exceeded its 6 year design life.

AMSR-E was provided to NASA by Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and was built by Mitsubishi Electric Company. It was launched aboard the Aqua satellite from Vandenberg AFB on May 2, 2002. It has been an extremely successful experiment, and has gathered a huge quantity of data that will be revealing secrets of weather and climate as scientific research with the archived data continues in the coming years.

As the U.S. Science Team Leader for AMSR-E, I would like to congratulate and thank all of those who made AMSR-E such a success: JAXA, MELCO, NASA, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, and the U.S. and Japanese Science Teams who developed the algorithms that turned the raw data collected by AMSR-E into so many useful products.

The good news is that AMSR2, a slightly modified and improved version of AMSR-E, will be launched early next year on Japan’s GCOM-W satellite, and will join Aqua and the other satellites in NASA’s A-Train constellation of Earth observation satellites in their twice-daily, 1:30 a.m./p.m. sun-synchronous polar orbit. It is my understanding that those data will be shared in near-real time with U.S. agencies.

We had hoped that AMSR-E would provide at least one year over data overlap with the new AMSR2 instrument. It remains to be determined – and is only speculation on my part – whether there might be an attempt to gather some additional data from AMSR-E later to help fulfill this cross-calibration activity with AMSR2. [The Aqua satellite can easily accommodate the extra torque imparted to the spacecraft, and last night's spin-down of AMSR-E was mostly to eliminate the very slight chance of sudden failure of the AMSR-E bearing assembly which could have caused the Aqua satellite to go into an uncontrolled and unrecoverable tumble.]

Again, I want to thank and congratulate all of those who made AMSR-E such a huge success!

UPDATE #1: As of early this morning, the torque required to keep AMSR-E spinning at 4 rpm was too large for its own momentum compensation mechanism to handle, with excessive amounts of momentum being dumped to the spacecraft. As a result, the instrument has now been spun down to 0 rpm. The satellite has shed the excessive momentum, and is operating normally, as are the other instruments aboard the spacecraft (MODIS, CERES, and AIRS).

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61 thoughts on “In space, there are no Jiffy Lubes

  1. Nuts.

    From IARC-JAXA is this notice:
    “Sea-ice data update stops for a while due to the suspension of AMSR-E observation.”

  2. [ "Again, I want to thank and congratulate all of those who made AMSR-E such a huge success!" ]

    Yeppers!!!

    Unlike other programs – money – time…. well spent!

  3. Part of my daily ritual for the past few years has been checking the sea ice graphs. I have used them as a teaching tool when we discuss how the internet has changed the face of scientific discourse. The graphs have helped to persuade more than one person that the ‘ice is melting/world is burning’ crusade is not at all settled science.
    I feel as though I have lost an old friend. Thanks Roy and all associated with AMSR-E for what you have achieved and thanks, Anthony, for making it easily available for people like me. Kia ora, kia kaha – be well and be strong.

  4. Oh dear.

    As those of us familiar with high vacuum systems know only too well bearings and their lubricants do not function well in such an adverse environment. I am only amazed it worked as satisfactorily and for as long as it did. A tribute to it’s engineers but I fear also it marks the loss of an old friend which has given good service for many years.

    Kindest Regards

  5. Bummer Roy !

    Must be somewhat like losing your first born.

    I hope you and JC have some other work to fall back on; I can’t even imagine what I’d do if my prime software suddenly started dishing out nonsense; well it already does that; but only under strict misdirection from me.

    I’m going to go and get a beer and drink a farewell toast to AMSR-E

    Well there’s plenty more work to get done Dr Roy, and you’ve got the team to be doing it.

    George

  6. A question for Dr. Spencer – if the instruments are working normally, will there still be a chance to compare data the instruments are taking (even without the rotation), with data from AMSR2 when it launches next year?

  7. completely O/T but i can’t do a thing on the Tips&Notes page:

    (FIVE PAGES OF CRAZY TALK, UNRECOGNISABLE AS AUSTRALIA – SEE THE COMMENTS)
    3 Oct: Rolling Stone: Jeff Goodell: Climate Change and the End of AustraliaWant to know what global warming has in store for us? Just go to Australia, where rivers are drying up, reefs are dying, and fires and floods are ravaging the continent

    http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/climate-change-and-the-end-of-australia-20111003

  8. Crap – now I gotta worry about another big piece o’ metal crashing down on me as I walk through the yard?

    Oh well. I’ve been hit 4 times by lightning streamers – I have to have some immunity by now? ;)

  9. Some gadgets just work.

    I didn’t know what Jiffy Lubes were so the word looked like a distorted version of “Jeff Id Luboš”, some combination of two climate skeptics. ;-)

  10. Thank you to a noble bird. . . and some raspberries at parties unknown responsible for letting it exceed its expected life cycle by three years and still have a gap to the next capability being in place.

  11. How long do these satellites gathering global temps/sea ice extent data last? it seems that 6-9 years per sat gives little time to tweak the technology to get the best accurate data possible. maybe i’m just over-reading it.

  12. The simplest things can run afoul. This is something that NASA could have prevented, if asked. Teflon and a bit of pressurized silicon. A small bladder with a bit of silicon jell.

  13. Arent there any trolls here, claiming that none of this can be true, since it is Spencer saying this? Strange.

  14. Now I begin to understand the term “withdrawal symptoms”!
    Even the Barrow webcam is down. NPEO webcams are down, only one thermometer working…
    I feel there is a conspiracy to hide the Arctic ice! Paranoid? You bet!

  15. Like Purakanui I’m gutted
    Let’s hope with the new Satellite they are able to compare apples with apples
    I hope it is lofted before 2014 so that we are able to see that the North Polar Sea ice has disappeared in summer as predicted by the great profit (not a spelling error) ;-)

    1.377 times the size of India at minima this year

    A sad day

    Dave

  16. It’s always a bit saddening when a trusty old bird you’ve got used to having around starts to fall apart like this – the more so when it’s just an “oilcan job”. I still miss NOAA 17, which had similar motor-sticking problems early last year – the lack of its early-to-mid morning pic sitll irritates. Realistically, though, I tip my hat to those who can build stuff this complex and expensive and actually get it up there and delivering several years’ worth of decent results. And the next one’s always better. Precision tech is great.

  17. That’s an unfortunate turn of events.

    Why does the AMSR-E instrument package need to spin? Why 480 lbs? That seems rather large. What the heck is in there? Are there better designs that don’t need to rotate or that would use a smaller mass? How is the AMSR2 instrument different? Does it have this “fatal” flaw?

    What impact will this have upon the science and the global climate data sets in the short term and long term?

  18. I had a diesel engine do that once. No problem with contra-rotating van, but the smoke was amazing.

    RIP AMSR-E

  19. Shows what you get when the lowest quote is accepted. A few more billion and it would still work.

  20. JinOH says:
    October 4, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    Crap – now I gotta worry about another big piece o’ metal crashing down on me as I walk through the yard?

    Oh well. I’ve been hit 4 times by lightning streamers – I have to have some immunity by now? ;)

    Change your name to “The Same Place” as lightning never strikes there twice!

  21. No data overlap? Does the world really not have any comparable system up there? This opens the door to all kinds of Hansen-style adjustment tricks. Really bad.

  22. Bummer.
    .
    .
    .
    On the other hand, we can put to rest that old saying, “What goes around, comes around.” It seems that what goes around eventually stops.

  23. I’m truly sorry to hear that Roy. The data will be missed. Its unfortunate that there will be no overlap with the new instrument.

  24. The good new in this is that the town musicians in Grimm’s city of Bremen will not be able to do their dirty work, either.

  25. Obummer

    To bad Obummer & Congress shut down the US space program. I can just picture an astronaut with a lube gun doing a space walk ……

  26. It’s too bad that such a valuable tool is lost due to the inavailability of a simple device: A grease gun.
    Perhaps in the future, someone can invent a miniature device attached to spacecraft that can perform that function Then again, a miniature robot to do such mundane things can be sent up.

  27. pat says:
    October 4, 2011 at 11:21 pm
    The simplest things can run afoul. This is something that NASA could have prevented, if asked. Teflon and a bit of pressurized silicon. A small bladder with a bit of silicon jell.

    rbateman says:
    October 5, 2011 at 3:56 am
    It’s too bad that such a valuable tool is lost due to the inavailability of a simple device: A grease gun.
    Perhaps in the future, someone can invent a miniature device attached to spacecraft that can perform that function Then again, a miniature robot to do such mundane things can be sent up.

    I was wondering the same thing. Presumably this is a sealed bearing. Is it not possible to build in a bearing-lubricating mechanism, with a supply of the appropriate lubricant? Or do they figure that it isn’t worth the trouble, since other components also have finite lifespans?

    /Mr Lynn

  28. A big aaaah from here for AMSR-E – even my wife felt sad when I told her the story.

    I hope it can be ‘spun back up’ one last time when the new one comes on line next year or there will be a problem in correlating the two series. This is a serious oversight in not having the replacement already in service – made more glaring by the fact that AMSR-E only had a six-year life span in the first place. Surely continuity in such a time series is important enough to have some overlap between the lifetimes of these instruments?

  29. melinspain says:
    October 5, 2011 at 2:41 am

    Thanks for the link but I only see a blank square. :-(
    I’m on IE8.

  30. melinspain says:
    October 5, 2011 at 2:41 am

    Ooops… this time the link works! Nice picture. Thank you.

  31. I wonder if the lubricant used was “non fossil” derived, green veggie sort of stuff, that has now gone off.
    Shame all the same, back to huskies, sledges and poles I guess.

  32. Why put another satellite up there before the old one goes to the nursing home? The climate question was settled don’t ya know. No incentive to gather more information. Just in case we might be wrong.

    Those folks in NASA that promoted the “settled” nonsense ought to cough up part of their salary to launch the next one and be reprimanded for not promoting the need for more data instead of sitting on their cushion of homogenized data.

  33. Maybe we should have the Mars rover people construct our satellites! Seems to me we should be able to build instrument carriers with a longer life than my living-room sofa. Or is extremely expensive space junk no longer a problem? GK

  34. Am I the only person concerned that programs that measure the climate are being underfunded because the CAGW crowd don’t like the measurements.

  35. Thank goodness it was operational throughout the Arctic sea ice minimum period. Are there other observations or proxies which will be used to estimate area/extent during the next few months?

  36. a jones says on October 4, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    Oh dear.

    As those of us familiar with high vacuum systems know only too well bearings and their lubricants do not function well in such an adverse environment. …

    Must be some form (or a derivative) of the “Krytox” family of greases for vacuum-of-space use?

    http://www2.dupont.com/Lubricants/en_US/index.html

    Brief intro blurb from their Product Overview slick:

    The DuPont™ Krytox® Advantage – Introduction to Krytox® Lubricants

    Discovered in 1959, the polymer that would become known worldwide as DuPont™ Krytox® showed remarkable thermal and oxidative stability. Potential uses envisioned then included
    lubricant for the MACH 3+ turbine engine, hydraulic oil, rocket gear box lubricant, and even gyroscope oil.

    In 1963, Krytox® oil was used in a GE engine test for the supersonic transport aircraft. In 1964, new Krytox® PFPE-based grease formulations were developed jointly with the US Navy and the Air Force, resulting in military specification MIL-G-27617, which was developed specifically to cover Krytox®. The first commercial sales of Krytox® were for non-flammable lubricants for the Apollo space program in 1965.

    Prior to 1981, the only commercially available Krytox® lubricants were aerospace oil and greases. Since then, PFPE-based oils and greases have been adopted across a very wide range of industries and applications. There are PFPE oils and greases for industrial operations, vacuum pump fluids, incidental food contact, automotive uses, reactive gas, and of course, military applications — to name just a few.

    Today, of course, it’s our well-known trademark for high performance synthetic lubricants used for a variety of applications. Krytox® oils are made from only fluorine, carbon, and oxygen — a mixture of compounds collectively known by many names — including perfluoropolyether (PFPE), perfluoroalkylether (PFAE), and perfluoropolyalkylether (PFPAE).

    Krytox® perfluorinated oils and greases deliver high performance, perform at wide temperature ranges, and provide superior quality lubrication under extreme conditions in comparison
    to hydrocarbon alternatives.

    .

  37. Curious why magnetic bearings aren’t used in an application like this, probably too much “play” ?

  38. Mr Lynn says on October 5, 2011 at 4:56 am

    I was wondering the same thing. Presumably this is a sealed bearing. Is it not possible to build in a bearing-lubricating mechanism, with a supply of the appropriate lubricant?

    The satellite was designed for what – six years? Has run for 9+ according to the info above … I’d say that they exceeded “design life” by a healthy margin. Want more life? Put it into the design specs next time! Then a 9 or 10+ yr life will become upwards of 15 yrs actual use.

    No mention of the degradation of other systems, like batteries, which are also ‘wear’ or ‘wear-out’ items.

    Ideally ALL systems would fail on System_Design_Life + 1 (day) then the insurance held by the contractor would not have to pay off and an RFQ (Request for Quote) would be issued by NASA for a replacement bird (speaking from a contractor POV)!

    .

  39. Rob Potter says on October 5, 2011 at 5:56 am

    This is a serious oversight in not having the replacement already in service …

    The difference between ‘operational meteorology’ satellites (GOES series et al) and ‘research sats'; lower priority for research sats therefore lower budget and _no_ provisioning for spares program (note: we have spare GOES “operational meteorology” birds in orbit though).

    Per NASA’s Objective webpage

    The EOS AQUA AMSR-E measures geophysical parameters supporting several global change science and monitoring efforts, including precipitation, oceanic water vapor, cloud water, near-surface wind speed, sea surface temperature, soil moisture, snow cover, and sea ice parameters. All of these measurements are critical to understanding the Earth’s climate.

    .

  40. Good satellite, good instrument. Thanks for the update Roy. Like others here I checked the JAXA sea ice data once each morning. Sorry to see AMSR-E go. Guess we need to start considering having a permanent maintenance space station up there. The cost would be high, but maybe if all the worlds nations chipped in. We shouldn’t be loosing satellites over a little oil.

  41. Bummer. Thanks and condolences to everyone involved! Good to hear that other instruments on the spacecraft are still providing data. Hope the launch of AMSR2 goes well. “The King is dead. Long live the King!”

  42. I think we can trust that the designers went to every length to use the correct lubricant and design for the longest possible life under what are, frankly, conditions that would make most solutions useless in minutes to days.

    That being said, it is sad to see a huge investment like that sidelined because of “a 30$ lube job” ( ok it might 3000$ worth of lube) …and the multimillion cost of getting the lube and a mechanic up there.

    So looking forward to the day when someone has a “garage vehicle”, with staff or teleoperated fixit machines, parked in orbit and a maintenance run is – if non trivial – something you can order up. “Please schedule Sat 1234 for maintenance, schematics and specs to follow”.

    It be nice to have something that can zap or “vacuum up” all the crap floating up there too that’s making things more dangerous, but I suspect a powerful enough laser to zap stuff to gas would raise concerns, perhaps it could be used to nudge ( zap, zap zap) things to decaying orbit?

  43. Like many others, I enjoy my morning coffee while pouring over AMSR-E data. And like many others I have many unanswered questions about whether other satellites can collect this information.

    Does anyone know how ice will be measured before the replacement goes up?

  44. I Don’t know why they couln’t have used magnetic bearings with no friction surfaces at all ?

    Still we do have the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer(AVHRR/3) on NOAA-19,
    can’t that be used to gather sea ice data from both poles ? Channel number 3A – Resolution at Nadir 1.09 km – Wavelength (um)1.58 – 1.64 – Typical Use = Snow and ice detection

    Currently, NOAA is operating five polar orbiters. A new series of polar orbiters, with improved sensors, began with the launch of NPP in May 2011 and NPOESS-C1 in September 2014. The newest, NOAA-19, was launched February 06, 2009. NOAA-18, NOAA-17, NOAA-16 and NOAA-15 all continue transmitting data as stand-by satellites. NOAA-19 is classified as the “operational” satellite. See The NEDSIS Website for further details.

    National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS)
    NOAA’s Geostationary and Polar-Orbiting Weather Satellites

    http://noaasis.noaa.gov/NOAASIS/ml/genlsatl.html

    Details of NOAA-19 instrumentation
    Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer – AVHRR

    http://noaasis.noaa.gov/NOAASIS/ml/avhrr.html

    The Russians have some satellites too don’t they ?

  45. Then there’s the NPP Orbiter. NPP will be launched on a United Launch Alliance Delta II 7920 expendable launch vehicle. The Delta II first stage was hoisted into position on the pad at NASA’s Space Launch Complex 2 on July 20. The nine solid rocket boosters were attached, and the second stage was hoisted atop the first stage. Launch vehicle testing is under way.

    The NPP spacecraft is scheduled to move to the pad and be mated with the rocket on Oct. 7. Launch is scheduled for Oct. 27 2011, during a 9-minute and 10-second launch window from 5:48:01 to 5:57:11 a.m. EDT. The Delta II will place the satellite into a 512-mile high circular polar orbit.

    Among its intruments are the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), VIIRS, a scanning radiometer, collects visible and infrared imagery and radiometric measurements of the land, atmosphere, cryosphere, and oceans. It extends and improves upon a series of measurements initiated by the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS). VIIRS data is used to measure cloud and aerosol properties, ocean color, sea and land surface temperature, ice motion and temperature, fires, and Earth’s albedo. Climatologists use VIIRS data to improve our understanding of global climate change.

    Details of this instrument:

    http://jointmission.gsfc.nasa.gov/viirs.html

    Why then must we wait until “early next year” for Japan’s GCOM-W satellite, with its AMSR2 “a slightly modified and improved version of AMSR-E”, to be launched, when we already have the AVHRR on the NOAA-19 (Aqua) and in just a few weeks will have the new and improved and very shiney VIIRS aboard the NPP ? Am I missing something ?

  46. This looks like an excellent opportunity for one of the small, lean startup space companies. You don’t need much more than a versatile, well-stocked and highly mobile orbiting mini-satellite with generalized functionality to perform such services. Imagine one of the half-dozen or so company getting a permanent roving jack-of-all-trades orbiting device that packs micro-robotic machinery and miscellaneous supplies (including most likely rolls of duct tape, bulk wire, a supply of silly putty, generic replacement electronics and solar panels, and vacuum-grade superglue), with maneuvering capability that can get it into close enough proximity to sensitive orbiting equipment to carry out such repairs without a high probability of doing more damage than good. In this world, SMALL is good.

    I envision a tiny thing the size of a fat man on a bicycle, with several tethered specialized semiautonomous highly maneuverable robotic devices capable of a large array of service. “Fat Man” can receive supplies from periodic visits from small earth-based launch vehicles, and is capable of moving into both high and low orbits, self-repair and both autonomous and earth-based navigation and “docking” procedures with a wide variety of satellites. Or perhaps several “Fat Men” that can rendezvous with an orbiting base that stocks such supplies with regular deliveries from below.

    Clearly this is something that is needed NOW, and I believe it could be assembled largely from off-the-shelf equipment, a few cutting-edge robotic devices, and the sort of launch platforms being developed by these companies. Imagining what NASA etc would likely pay to have someone come and fix their satellites on demand, I can’t help but think this would be a money-maker for a reasonably ambitious for-profit company.

  47. re: Axel am I missing something

    As far as I know the satellites you reference do not use microwaves which are superior for determining differences between clouds,snow and ice. This was AMSR-E’s advantage. But I’m only just learning this stuff, I could be wrong here.

  48. @ dave in Canmore

    Well the AMSR-E instrument was made in 2002, and the AVHRR/3 instrument made in 2009, so I assume that it will be more advanced, since 7 years is a long time in electronics development. Then the VIIRS is brand new and made just this year, and specially designed to look at these very parameters you mention with increased accuracy. See the linked pages above at NOAA.

    This is what baffled me. Such a hullaballoo about this old orbiting dustbin. To use an analogy, would you kick up such a fuss about an old PC from 2002, with its Pentium 4 Processor, 2GHz single CPU 32Bit Chip and 42 millionTransistors, when you could have already, a Core 2 Processor, 3 GHz Quad CPU (Yorkfield) 64Bit and with 820 Million Transistors, and then just in a few weeks you can have instead, a Core i7 Processor, 3.3 GHz Six-Core CPU (Gulftown) 64Bit and with 1170 million Transistors.

    I suppose for the regular user of that (now) pile of expensive scrap, it is like an old friend that they don’t want to let go. For me however I just cannot wait to see the results from the new and improved and very shiney VIIRS aboard the NPP. I hear that the resolution is so good that we shall even be able to see Pen Haddow struggling across the ice floes with his sled next year, and how we shall laugh at his feeble antics. Charles Monnett will even be able to count the Bowhead whales from the comfort of his own prison cell perhaps. ……. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration ;)

  49. OK so if it is Sea ice you are worried about then images are available currently & historically from the NOAA-N Prime (NOAA-19), and it’s predecessors, NOAA-15 NOAA-16 NOAA-17 NOAA-18, all of which are still up, and all have the AVHRR instrument in one of its 3 development stages.

    The main products produced by the National Ice Center (NIC).
    Products on Demand (wideband connection required)
    An interactive display of current daily and weekly products. (Requires Silverlight plug-in : MSIE)

    Example Arctic Sea-ice image for today …

    NIC Applet website to choose your own images, download data and so forth …

    http://www.natice.noaa.gov/products/products_on_demand.html

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