Jason-1

A satellite’s ‘death’ a reminder of the incredible pace of change

An Associated Press story published in the Herald on July 4, reported the “death” of a satellite called Jason-1. It was a telling example of how with time the magical becomes mundane.

Oct. 4 will be the 56th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik I, the first man-made object to orbit Earth. As a NASA website puts it, Sputnik was “the size of a beach ball,” about 22 inches in diameter and weighing about 183 pounds. Beyond circling Earth every 98 minutes, all it did was emit a beep via radio signal to let everyone know it was there.

With that, the space race was on, although in retrospect it was hardly a race at all. Before the nation lost interest in the early 1970s, the United States put a dozen men and a couple of dune buggies on the moon – where no Russian has ever set foot.

Nonetheless, Sputnik’s beep changed the world. The United States freaked out because the Soviet Union did it. If the Russians could do that, they could launch missiles at us or put weapons in space! How could their scientists beat ours?

In response, the U.S. created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. There was a national push to bolster education, particularly the teaching of science. And, in essence, an entire space industry was created from scratch.

Where that led is all around us. Satellites bring us everything from television shows and GPS navigation to images of weather and fires. And if that is all readily available to anyone and everyone, one can only guess at what the Pentagon or the National Security Agency can now see.

Consider, for example, Jason-1. It scanned the surface of the ocean every 10 days, covering 95 percent of the ice-free seas. It measured sea level, wind speed and wave height, and with that recorded a rise in the ocean level of 1.6 inches. A NASA spokesman called that “a critical measure of climate change and a direct result of global warming.”

After that, Jason-1 was tasked with observing the Earth’s gravity field over the oceans. It then did a 406-day scan that discovered underwater geographical features and fostered a greater understanding of the ocean floor.

Jason-1 was a joint effort of the U.S. and France. It was meant to last three to five years but instead carried on for more than 11 years. As NASA said, it was “a resounding scientific, technical and international success.”

Contact with Jason-1 was lost last month, and Monday it was told to turn off its attitude-control system, which will result in its solar arrays turning away from the sun. Its batteries are expected to be exhausted in three months. It will nonetheless remain in orbit for 1,000 years.

And while the plaintive beeping of a metal beach ball once got the world’s attention, Jason-1 came and went largely unnoticed. An 1,100-pound machine that could precisely measure the oceans from space, a machine that operated as intended for more than a decade with no maintenance or the touch of human hands, is for most of us now unremarkable.

But for anyone who remembers a country that all but came to a halt to watch a man step onto the moon, or that gave ticker-tape parades to astronauts, it is still amazing. Things such as Jason-1 may now be commonplace to many – not unlike smartphones, with which teens can now do things not even thought of a generation ago. But they are reminders nonetheless of how quickly and unpredictably the world can change.