Of Bad Luck and Space Mission Numbering

March 4th, 2015 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.

lift-not-have-number-13 A couple of days ago, one of DoD’s polar-orbiting weather satellites — “F-13” — exploded. They aren’t sure why, but one insider has claimed it was an overheated battery. I guess I don’t see how an overheated battery causes the disintegration of a satellite into 40+ chunks, unless it ignited leftover hydrazine propellant.

Now, I don’t consider myself superstitious, but there has been a pattern of failure among space missions involving the number “13”.

Out of the NOAA polar orbiting satellites (NOAA-6, -7, -8, -9, -10, -11, -12, -13, -14, -15, 16, -17, -18, -19), which one might you guess failed? That’s right, NOAA-13. In 1993 after less than 2 weeks on orbit, NOAA-13 experienced a short circuit in it’s battery charging system, rendering the satellite useless. In contrast, NOAA-15 is now in it’s 17th year of continuous operation.

And guess which Apollo mission nearly ended in disaster? Apollo-13, after an oxygen tank exploded and Tom Hanks almost single-highhandedly brought the Moon mission safely home.

And what about the GOES-13 geostationary weather satellite that failed just before hurricane season started (in 2013!). It was later brought back from the dead (after 2013, of course).

I think I would just skip “13” when numbering satellites. Maybe use “12A” instead.

And don’t get me started about calling a satellite “ADEOS”. The Japanese Earth observation satellites ADEOS-I and ADEOS-II both failed early in their missions from solar panel malfunctions. The successful follow-on Japanese satellite is GCOM-W, which fortunately doesn’t mean “bye-bye” in any language.

Oh! I almost forgot! The Japanese name for the 2 failed ADEOS satellites was “Midori”, which in Japanese means…wait for it…”green”.


46 Responses to “Of Bad Luck and Space Mission Numbering”

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  1. Gunga Din says:

    8-)There are lots of odd coincidences in history. Lincoln’s secretary was named Kennedy. Kennedy’s secretary was named Lincoln.
    I sure hope we don’t have to wait for AR-13 before the IPCC implodes!

    • Dog says:

      The Lincoln and Kennedy Comparison is a classic!

      Here’s the full version for those that have never read it:

      Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846.

      Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946.

      Kennedy and Lincoln each contain 7 letters.

      Both were particularly concerned with civil rights.

      Both wives lost children while living in the White House.

      Both presidents were shot on a Friday. Both were shot in the head.

      Both were assassinated by Southerners. Both were succeeded by Southerners. Both successors were named Johnson.

      Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln was born in 1808. Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was born in 1908.

      John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln, was born in 1839. Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated Kennedy, was born in 1939.

      Both assassins were known by their three names.

      The names of both assassins comprise fifteen letters.

      Booth ran from a theatre and was caught in a warehouse. Oswald ran from a warehouse and was caught in a theatre.

      Booth and Oswald were both assassinated before their trials.

  2. jimc says:

    Logic (lunar cycles in a solar cycle) says there should be 13 months in a year. Roman emperors and everyone since then balked at that.

    • Beta Blocker says:

      I was nearly killed in a car accident which occurred on a Friday the 13th. It happened on a visit to a nearby city, a visit which was completely optional.

      Before I started out, a little voice told me to postpone the trip. But I didn’t listen. It was more than a year before I felt like myself again.

    • KevinK says:

      Starting in the early 1980’s I was employed by Eastman Kodak (you may have heard of them, or your grandparents did…). It was still a large company with an international “footprint” (in the top 25 companies worldwide) at that time.

      The founder of the company, George Eastman, set up the original accounting system based on 13 periods in a year (4 weeks each) back in the 1880’s when he startted the company. He thought this more logical than 12 months of different durations. This 13 “period” system was still in use in the mid 1980’s, each period was exactly 4 weeks. When planning labor hours there was no need to “adjust” for short and long months, every period was exactly the same.

      It was of course totally out of sync with every other business, but Kodak was large enough that the folks they purchased stuff from “went along”.

      They (Kodak) finally converted to a 12 month accounting system in the late 1980’s. And then things went “downhill”, but not because of the accounting system.

      Cheers, KevinK.

      • KevinK says:

        Actually, now that you mention it, that “13 period” accounting system at Kodak might have had something to do with the final outcome… Nah, that’s just to superstitious to consider…..

  3. David Gray says:

    A few years ago I was monitoring a defense program experiment. One of the observation satellites exploded. The presumption was that it was hit by a meteor. Possibly that happened to F-13.

  4. Tregonsee says:

    The report that there was a rapid, unexplained temperature rise before the explosion suggests asking whether it was targeted by a directed energy weapon. Assuming the temperature sensors were still functional, it should be possible to determine whether the heat source was internal or external. I have no information to suggest this was the case, but considering there is a history of countries using aging satellites for test purposes, it is a possibility.

  5. Meg Hoskins says:

    Love your blog Roy. Thanks for being ‘real’ in a world of trickery.

    On 13… it is a kind of nowhere number really… not 2×6 or 2×7 or anything useful like that.

    But the power of 3… the trinity… it has got to redeem thirteen somehow?

    Please keep up the fantastic stream of information.

    PS. Recently we had two cyclones cross the coast of Australia on the same day! First in recorded history
    đŸ™‚

    • Mike Norman says:

      The number 13 is a Prime number.

      • Meg Hoskins says:

        Hi Mike… umm derrr

        I know 13 is a prime number đŸ™‚
        Was commenting that ’13’ seems to have no ‘sexiness’ about it.
        And why so much fuss about a number that is almost impossible to apply to our wordly situation. And why does it bring so much bad luck ?

        1+3=4

        Any thoughts?

  6. Johan says:

    I just finished reading David Hand’s “The Improbability Principle”, and unusual coincidences like the above are in fact commonplace.
    http://improbability-principle.com/

  7. geran says:

    Yeah, some elevators do not go to the “13th” floor. Some airlines do not have a seat “13”.

    I’m always willing to take home the 13th gold bar….

  8. Aaron S says:

    In Malaysia I live on the 13A floor because 13 is insignificant in this culture but 4 is bad because it looks like the Chinese symbol for death. I even got a good deal… bc people are superstitious. So hopefully bad luck is based on location and not stuck on the country of origin so that life on the 13A floor is good for an American.

  9. Bret says:

    I just hope we don’t now see “superstitious” added to the adjectives “denier” and “religious” that are used by warmenists to describe Dr. Spencer.

  10. ossqss says:

    Hummm, I wonder what number those 2 failed CO2 Satellites had?

  11. PaulD says:

    triskaidekaphobia!

  12. KevinK says:

    Dr. Spencer,

    Actually those batteries are like a little bomb. A steel can that is welded shut with chemical reactions inside that can (under the wrong conditions) produce high gas pressures. The battery is usually located near the center of the unit (reduces torque problems with a large mass off center). The rest of the satellite is actually quite delicate. Satellites are only strong enough to survive launch, and no stronger (just a little margin in case the engineers goofed in the calculations)

    It is entirely conceivable that something electrical went wrong shorting the battery and causing an over pressure condition that burst the steel can. With enough force this could cut something structurally important which could start the satellite tumbling and the forces could cause it to break apart. A sudden gas release in one direction could also cause a tumbling action.

    A micro-meteorite could have struck a cable or a relay and suddenly shorted a power cable. It has happened.

    Generally the redundant electrical systems are intentionally routed along different paths through the satellite so a “hit” from a micro-meteorite only takes out one of the two (usually) redundant electrical systems leaving the satellite functional and intact.

    It is impossible to protect against all possibilities, if we applied the precautionary principle to spaceflight we would still be here on the ground.

    It is weird that it happened to unit #13, was it the 13th orbit as well (no, this unit made about 100k orbits) that would be really spooky.

    Whatever happened came on quickly and the operators could not correct things in time. Usually these satellites are monitored 24/7/365 and if they start acting “flakey”(slang for “not nominal”) they are ready to “splash the bird” (i.e. “land” it in the Pacific Ocean) to prevent an orbital debris cloud.

    Cheers, KevinK

  13. Curious George says:

    There are other examples of numbering mishaps. Remember the days of Microsoft DOS 1, DOS 3, DOS 5. Anybody remember DOS 2, DOS 4? They were total disasters. Windows 3 was a big success, then Windows 95 – did you notice that only odd numbers are any good? Two exceptions followed, Windows 98 and Windows 2000. Then Windows Vista (presumably Windows 6), then Windows 7, and Windows 8. In is corporate wisdom, Microsoft is now skipping Windows 9 and proceeding directly to Windows 10.

    • Slipstick says:

      Actually, for Microsoft products, every other version is the good one, no matter how it’s numbered. Does anyone remember Microsoft Windows ME? It came between 98SE and XP and was horrid; everyone I knew who upgraded from 98 went back to 98.

    • Josualdo says:

      DOS 6.2? I think I still have those floppies somewhere.

  14. yonason says:

    When I was in grade school, every Friday the 13 that my attention was drawn to, usually by the superstitious types, I would see what happened to me, and it was invariably good. So, empirically, I have no fear at all of Friday the 13th. Thursday the 12th, on the other hand, was an entirely different matter. đŸ™‚

  15. Slipstick says:

    It’s been reported that DMSP F11 also exploded, about 10 years ago. It was a Block 5D model, the same as F13, launched about 5 years earlier. From the report of a temperature spike just prior to the disintegration, a battery failure seems a likely contributor.

    It occurs to me that, perhaps, the failure of F13 was a karmic balance to the failure of F11, since so many people consider 11 a “lucky” number. I’m partial to 11 myself, not because of luck, rather because it is the first multidigit prime in decimal, binary, and hexadecimal (but not octal) and is optically symmetrical.

  16. Kasuha says:

    Looking at list of satellite accidents, the number 13 does not seem to be any special. It’s number 1 what seems to have it worst. Of course it’s often because it’s first and also because many satellite series never reach as high numbers as 13.

    http://www.sat-nd.com/failures/

    ADEOS I
    AEHF 1
    AMSC 1
    Anatolia 1
    Anik E1
    Cakrawarta 1
    Chandrayaan 1
    DBS 1
    Echostar I
    EOS AM 1
    ERS 1
    Estrela do Sul 1
    Eutelsat W1
    Express MD1
    GeoEye 1
    HGS 1
    Indostar 1
    Midori I
    MSG 1
    Nahuel 1
    NigComSat 1
    Radarsat 1
    Sicral 1
    SMART 1
    Solidaridad 1
    TDRS I
    Telkom 1
    Thuraya 1
    W1

    Apart of that, numbers are all around the place. Space is dangerous.

  17. WizGeek says:

    Yet the United States is firmly rooted in the number 13.

    From the 13 original colonies came the 13 original states with a flag that bore 13 stripes and stars. The 13 stripes continue to adorn our nation’s colors.

    The Great Seal of the United States (as depicted on the green side of the $1 bill) has an eagle with 13 stripes, 13 arrows, 13 leaves, 13 berries, 13 stars, and 13 letters in “E PLURIBUS UNUM”. The pyramid has 13 traces of bricks.

    Amendment 13 to the US Constitution abolished slavery.

    Thirteen isn’t such a “bad” number after all, right?

  18. Slywolfe says:

    For bridge players, 13 is THE magic number.

  19. Lewis says:

    Changing the subject, Richard Lindzen has an essay about Rep. Grijalva’s bullying, in March 5 Wall St. Journal.

  20. KevinK says:

    From satellite missions the number 13 is also a lucky, the first US reconnaissance satellite program (code named CORONA) had 12 failed attempts to get an imaging satellite into orbit. The 13th attempt succeeded but had no film on board (it was a test mission).

    The 14th launch returned the first images of the Earth’s surface from space (aka IMINT; Image Intelligence) on black and white film, processed here on the surface.

    That was in August of 1960.

    President Eisenhower continued to support the Corona program through all it’s failed launches, even though some “experts” told him it would “never work”.

    The images gave the USA it’s first real data about the bomber and ICBM capability of the USSR. This capability was quite a bit less than some “alarmists” were claiming at the time. Some US “alarmists” wanted to build ridiculous numbers of bombers and missiles (50,000 bombers, 20,000 missiles) to “close the missile gap”.

    President Eisenhower resisted those that called for this huge arms build up and some of this history is what he referred to in his farewell address.

    This was all Top Secret until 1995.

    More info here;

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corona_(satellite)

    Cheers, KevinK

  21. KevinK says:

    Oh yes, one of those “alarmists” back in 1960 was a young senator from Ma. by the name of John F Kennedy. JFK gained quite a bit of “electoral traction” over that “other” candidate by claiming there was a HUGE MISSILE GAP between the USA and the USSR and he would “fix it” once he was elected.

    Of course Richard Nixon was not at liberty to divulge how he knew that there wasn’t any stinking “missile gap”. And once JFK was in office the whole topic of a “missile gap” suddenly disappeared.

    Nothing like preying on the stoked up fears of the citizens to get yourself elected. Heck, somebody could even “promise” to “heal” the planet and some citizens might even believe it, NAH, that could never happen….

    History, it might not repeat, but it sure does rhyme (not my saying, I forget the original author).

    Cheers, KevinK.

  22. Brian O. says:

    su·per·sti·tion
    excessively credulous belief in and reverence for supernatural beings.

    “I don’t consider myself superstitious” claims the man who professes belief in god.

    • jimc says:

      As far as we know, the universe burst into existence in an instant for no known physical reason. As far as we know, the universe appears to be fine tuned for life. As far as we know, the most complex thing in the universe exists in ourselves – complex enough to contemplate the universe. As far as we know, someone exceptional lived 2000 years ago. Just saying.

      • Brian Odeen says:

        “As far as we know, the universe burst into existence in an instant for no known physical reason”

        1) It burst into existence? How do you know this?
        2) No known physical reason? Lack of knowledge doesn’t mean anything.

        “As far as we know, the universe appears to be fine tuned for life.”

        I think what you mean is that life is fine tuned for our environment. Or are you arguing that, since the “UNIVERSE” is fine tuned for us, we could basically live anywhere? Do you have some destination in mind that would be nearly as hospitable as the surface of the Earth?

        “As far as we know, the most complex thing in the universe exists in ourselves — complex enough to manipulate the universe.”

        I’m assuming you are referring to our brains. Complex is an interesting word choice. How do you assign a level of relative complexity to one organ? Do you have some standard method of determining how complex something is? What system of measurement do you use?

        “As far as we know, someone exceptional lived 2000 years ago.”

        I’m assuming you mean “Jesus”. Do you have some historical evidence that he existed? Are you aware that historians still argue whether an actual person named Jesus existed?
        Personally, I think a lot of exceptional people lived 2000 years ago: our ancestors! Certainly not some idiot who didn’t even have children and spawned a religion that caused incredible bloodshed and suffering.

  23. KevinK says:

    Oh, one more tidbit, the “Military Industrial Complex” that President Eisenhower referred to in his farewell address were the “alarmists” that insisted we convert almost half of our US GDP into armaments to “close the missile gap”.

    Strikingly similar to those today that claim we need a “Manhattan Project” to replace “fossil” fuels (like that is even remotely possible).

    Ike was quite a wise fellow, I’m sure he heard all kinds of “advice” about how to win WWII in Europe, but he evaluated all the “advice” and found the correct balance.

    Right now it seems that the correct balance to win the “War Against Climate Change” would be for everybody to take a very deep breath, go on vacation for a decade, and see what the weather is doing then.

    Cheers, KevinK.

    • Slipstick says:

      The problem with your analogy is that the climate is not a linear system, unlike the “balance of terror” of the Cold War. Waiting ten years just moves us closer to difficult-to-predict inflection points which, when crossed, will be exponentially more expensive to mitigate.

      You should look at some the reports on the costs of climate change Swiss Re has done over the last few years. People in the real world, who have to make decisions based on facts, rather than ideological or religious beliefs, or simple head-in-the-sand wishful thinking, such as insurance companies and the military, know climate change is happening and are dealing with its costs on a daily basis.

      • Aaron S says:

        Have equivalent studies for the benefits of warming been completed? I dont understand how you asses a cost without evaluating both sides of the equation. Agriculture will increase from CO2, entire new habitable areas will emerge at higher latitudes, we wont invest in misnamed alternative energies that are not alternative bc they can not meet energy needs. Animals did great in the miocene, giant savannahs across the west, the mid west US was a mediteranian climate. History has shown cold kills so we would buffer against the next natural cold phase. Seems a bit biased to not consider the upside

      • KevinK says:

        “The problem with your analogy is that the climate is not a linear system, unlike the “balance of terror” of the Cold War.”

        Oh yes, MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) was quite non-linear, we all went from alive to dead in a few hours, that’s quite non-linear….

        “Waiting ten years just moves us closer to difficult-to-predict inflection points which, when crossed, will be exponentially more expensive to mitigate.”

        Exactly what the “missile gap” alarmists said back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s… “we’re all going to die” because the USSR has more missiles than we do. We need more missiles, more bombers, right now, or we’re all going to die…. The modern version is; “We need to eliminate fossil fuels, right now, cause we’re all going to die, sound familiar ???.

        ALLEGED INFLECTION POINTS, and an asteroid COULD wipe us all out while I’m typing this. And the Oceans could boil away before the next meeting to “heal” planet can be arranged (must be hard to book all the rooms in a “nice” enough resort location with less than 12 months notice).

        Yeah, I’m going to look at the “cost of climate” change as reported from somebody that wants to sell me insurance that they will never have to pay out against. Yeah, I’m that stupid…

        Jeeze, step back a bit from the doomsday stuff and read some history for cripes sake.

        Cheers, KevinK

  24. Lewis says:

    RE: Eisenhower’s farewell speech. And he went on to say:”Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

    In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

    Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

    The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

  25. Gunga Din says:

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

    I think the opposite is what is actually happening.
    The scientific-technological has itself become the captive of the political elite.
    Love of money is a root of evil.

    • Slipstick says:

      Actually, the scientific-technological has always been,dependent on and/or subject to control by the political (including religious leadership when they are one and the same, as they have so often been in human history) elite. Happily, however, the truth, which is the goal of science, eventually emerges; that is one of the beauties of the scientific method.

  26. Mike M says:

    LOL!

    And don’t even try to tell me it’s merely a coincidence that Murphy’s birthday is November 1 … binary of 13!

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  28. Ric Werme says:

    I was born on Friday the 13th. Near as I can tell it gives me immunity to all the bad luck others seem to have with it. I also get along with black cats and haven’t regretted walking under ladders (I always select ladders that don’t have someone on them).

    BTW, this year we have three Friday the 13ths. I’m expecting an especially non-unlucky year this year.

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