A highly successful ocean research satellite jointly operating by NASA and the French space agency CNES (Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales) was decommissioned this week following the loss of its last remaining transmitter. Named Jason-1, the satellite provided a massive amount of data on Earth's oceans for over 11 years.
In the spring of 2012, based on concern over the limited redundancy of Jason-1's aging control systems, NASA and CNES moved the satellite into its planned final "graveyard" orbit, depleted its extra fuel and reconfigured the mission to make observations that will improve our knowledge of Earth's gravity field over the ocean, in addition to delivering its oceanographic data products.
The first full 406-day marine gravity mission was completed on June 17. The resulting data have already led to the discovery of numerous small seamounts, which are underwater mountains that rise above the deep-sea floor. The data also have significantly increased the resolution of Earth's gravity field over the ocean, while increasing our knowledge of ocean bathymetry, which is the underwater depth of the ocean floor.
Contact was lost with the Jason-1 satellite on June 21. At the time of the last contact, Jason-1 and its instruments were healthy with no indications of any alarms or anomalies. Subsequent attempts to re-establish spacecraft communications from U.S. and French ground stations were unsuccessful. Extensive engineering operations undertaken to recover downlink communications also were unsuccessful.
After consultation with the spacecraft and transmitter manufacturers, it was determined a non-recoverable failure with the last remaining transmitter on Jason-1 was the cause of the loss of contact. The spacecraft's other transmitter experienced a permanent failure in September 2005. There now is no remaining capability to retrieve data from the Jason-1 spacecraft.
On July 1, mission controllers commanded Jason-1 into a safe hold state that reinitialized the satellite. After making several more unsuccessful attempts to locate a signal, mission managers at CNES and NASA decided to proceed with decommissioning Jason-1. The satellite was then commanded to turn off its magnetometer and reaction wheels. Without these attitude control systems, Jason-1 and its solar panels will slowly drift away from pointing at the sun and its batteries will discharge, leaving it totally inert within the next 90 days. The spacecraft will not reenter Earth's atmosphere for at least 1,000 years.
Launched Dec. 7, 2001, and designed to last three to five years, Jason-1 helped create a revolutionary 20-plus-year climate data record of global ocean surface topography that began in 1992 with the launch of the NASA/CNES TOPEX/Poseidon satellite. For more than 53,500 orbits, Jason-1 precisely mapped sea level, wind speed and wave height for more than 95 percent of Earth's ice-free ocean every 10 days. The mission provided new insights into ocean circulation, tracked our rising seas and enabled more accurate weather, ocean and climate forecasts.
“Since launch, it has charted nearly 1.6 inches (4 centimeters) of rise in global sea levels, a critical measure of climate change and a direct result of global warming,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
During parts of its mission, Jason-1 flew in carefully coordinated orbits with both its predecessor TOPEX/Poseidon and its successor, the Ocean Surface Topography Mission/Jason-2, launched in 2008. These coordinated orbit periods, which lasted about three years each, cross-calibrated the satellites, making possible a 20-plus-year unbroken climate record of sea level change. These coordination periods also doubled data coverage.
Combined with data from the European Space Agency's Envisat mission, which also measured sea level from space, these data allow scientists to study smaller-scale ocean circulation phenomena, such as coastal tides, ocean eddies, currents and fronts. These small-scale features are thought to be responsible for transporting and mixing heat and other properties, such as nutrients and dissolved carbon dioxide, within the ocean.
"Like its predecessor TOPEX/Poseidon, Jason-1 provided one of the most comprehensive pictures of changes in the tropical Pacific Ocean, including the comings and goings of El Nino and La Nina events," said Lee-Lueng Fu, Jason-1 project scientist at NASA's Jet PropulsionLaboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "These Pacific Ocean climate cycles are responsible for major shifts in sea level, ocean temperatures and rainfall every two to five years and can sometimes be so large that worldwide weather patterns are affected. Jason-1 data have been instrumental in monitoring and predicting these ever-changing cycles."
The Jason-2 mission, operated by the meteorological agencies of the United States and Europe (the National Oceanic and AtmosphericAdministration and EUMETSAT) in collaboration with NASA and CNES, is in good health and continues to collect science and operational data. This same U.S./European team is preparing to launch the next satellite in the series, Jason-3, in March 2015. Follow DCNewsroom on Twitter.