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Long-serving Earth observation sensor conks out

The Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer-EOS (AMSR-E), a Japanese sensor on board NASA’s Aqua satellite, stopped transmitting data on 4 October following problems with antenna rotation.

Scientists with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NASA are currently investigating the problem, but fear that the device might be permanently broken.

Originally designed for a lifetime of just three years, AMSR-E has since 2002 continuously provided Earth scientists with valuable observational data on precipitation, oceanic water vapour, sea ice extent, sea surface temperatures, and soil moisture.

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Its loss would leave a gap in many fields of global change research and monitoring.

“We were in the middle of a few drought (Horn of Africa, Texas) and flooding studies (Central China) before it went suddenly silent on Tuesday,” says Richard de Jeu, a geoscientist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands whose research group uses AMSR-E data to study the global hydrological cycle and in particular soil moisture.

A successor to AMSR-E, JAXA’s Global Change Observation Mission 1st- Water (GCOM-W1) – dubbed SHIZUKU (“water drop”) – is scheduled for launch in February 2012.

Animation: US soil moisture anomalies (Climatology-2011) as taken from the AMSR-E soil moisture product. Blue: Wet anomaly. Red: Dry anomaly. Credit: VU University Amsterdam soil moisture team

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