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#1
Old 07-04-2010, 02:49 PM
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Does NASA use whale oil

So, I'm sitting here watching America: The Story of Us on the History Channel, and they're describing how at the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution, whale oil was vitally important to the development of the IR because it extended working hours.

Then, the announcer mentioned that NASA still uses whale oil to power the Hubble telescope. I find this a bit hard to believe, you'd think that they'd have figured out how to synthasize it by now.

Googling this I find plenty of cites/sites claiming this is true and conversly, not true. What's the straight dope?
#2
Old 07-04-2010, 03:04 PM
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The Hubble Telescope Wikipedia page does not mention the words "oil" or "whale', and it seems to be powered by solar power and batteries.
#3
Old 07-04-2010, 03:10 PM
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Originally Posted by PlainJain View Post
So, I'm sitting here watching America: The Story of Us on the History Channel, and they're describing how at the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution, whale oil was vitally important to the development of the IR because it extended working hours.

Then, the announcer mentioned that NASA still uses whale oil to power the Hubble telescope. I find this a bit hard to believe, you'd think that they'd have figured out how to synthasize it by now.

Googling this I find plenty of cites/sites claiming this is true and conversly, not true. What's the straight dope?
"Power?"
No way. Too laughably absurd to even contemplate.

However, it's just barely conceivable that there may be a few drops in a bearing somewhere on the Hubble, but I find that to be pretty remote - there are synthetic oils that outperform whale oil in every respect.
#4
Old 07-04-2010, 03:19 PM
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"powered" is the wrong word. A more plausible claim would be that it is used as a lubricant. Offhand I can find this both claimed and denied concerning Hubble. Up until the whaling moratorium in the 1980s, it was used as a specialty lubricant, including use in the early space program. The specialty uses probably didn't amount to much volume, and other things, such as jojoba oil, are mostly used now.
#5
Old 07-04-2010, 03:25 PM
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Googling for "whale oil hubble" reveals a bunch of discussions on the net without any conclusive evidence. The myth/factoid seems to trace back to a book by Philip Hoare. As quoted in this book review:

"Even now, space agencies in Europe and America still use whale oil for roving vehicles on the moon and Mars; and as you read this, the Hubble Space Telescope is wheeling around the earth on spermaceti."

For what it's worth, I'm a space scientist and I've never heard of using whale oil. But it's possible I'm not old enough to have come across it - I was in high school when Hubble was launched.
#6
Old 07-04-2010, 03:26 PM
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Everything I can find references either the History Channel or this article as a source, which features these two sentences:

Quote:
Since it doesn't freeze in sub-zero temperatures, spermaceti was used in Nasa's space missions – no substitute could be found for this natural lubricant. Even now, the Hubble space telescope and the Voyager space probe are careening into infinity, oiled by whales.
No sources were given for that information though.
#7
Old 07-04-2010, 03:42 PM
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Originally Posted by yabob View Post
"powered" is the wrong word. A more plausible claim would be that it is used as a lubricant. Offhand I can find this both claimed and denied concerning Hubble. Up until the whaling moratorium in the 1980s, it was used as a specialty lubricant, including use in the early space program. The specialty uses probably didn't amount to much volume, and other things, such as jojoba oil, are mostly used now.
Yep, powered is their word not mine. I assumed it was used as a lubricant. I'm curious, if true how would they legally obtain it?
#8
Old 07-04-2010, 03:44 PM
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Presumably, from either those whales taken for Japanese "scientific research", arctic tribes who are still permitted a limited number of whale kills per year, or possibly dead whales who wash up on the beach who aren't too decayed.
#9
Old 07-04-2010, 03:51 PM
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oiled by whales
Band Name!
#10
Old 07-04-2010, 05:33 PM
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Originally Posted by enalzi View Post
Everything I can find references either the History Channel or this article as a source, which features these two sentences:



No sources were given for that information though.
Well, it's rubbish. While there may be some component of "whale oil" that doesn't freeze in subzero temperatures, spermaceti -- a waxy solid at room temperature -- isn't it. If spermaceti is used as a component of some grease in NASA spacecraft, or the Hubble, it's probably synthetic spermaceti, also known as cetyl palmitate. It's cheap, readily available, and doesn't violate US law.
#11
Old 07-04-2010, 06:23 PM
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Originally Posted by scr4 View Post
For what it's worth, I'm a space scientist and I've never heard of using whale oil.
Odd that this question came up. Similarly, my wife is a space (lunar) scientist and had never heard of it. Past tense.

She recently went to a team meeting and at dinner sat next to Jim Head. In conversation (specifically about Japan's whaling industry), he mentioned that yes, NASA does use a small amount of whale oil for lubrication in some equipment.

Before anyone jumps on me, I have to disclaim: I don't know one way or the other whether it's true. For all I know, Dr. Head could be mistaken. Or he could've simply been joking. But it did come up in conversation and was notable enough for my wife to remember it and relay it to me after she got home...
#12
Old 07-05-2010, 04:43 AM
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I suspect that somewhere in a warehouse at NASA there is a dusty barrel of "Space Lubricant No. 9" dating back to the 60s, with an unknown composition (but possibly including whale oil) but a very specific set of operating parameters. They keep tapping that barrel - eventually they will run out and have to search for a suitable synthetic replacement, but until then, they will just keep using it.

Si
#13
Old 07-05-2010, 07:35 AM
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How else are you going to make the whale fit in the spaceship???
#14
Old 07-05-2010, 10:08 AM
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Well, if NASA uses it perhaps that means there was a hidden plot line in "The Voyage Home" and the Federation was also dependent on whale oil.
#15
Old 07-05-2010, 10:52 AM
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Originally Posted by scr4 View Post
and as you read this, the Hubble Space Telescope is wheeling around the earth on spermaceti."
By the grace of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
#16
Old 07-05-2010, 11:46 AM
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I know 20 years ago when CD issues/reissues were the big thing in music, there was a monthly publication called "ICE" that announced upcoming releases, problems with manufactured ones. In one of them in talking with an engineer responsible for issuing some recordings made in the early 1960s, the engineer was raving about the quality of the tape used to record the group. According to this engineer, the tape was in such great condition because they were manufactured with whale oil to lubricate it. Such tape was outlawed a few years later to save the whales but this engineer said he knew of fellow engineers that preferred to use unused boxes of "whale oil" tape they found around instead of the later synthetic stuff, which tended to dry out and have more audio problems as time went by.

I don't know if it is used in NASA but it could be. There could be a certain amount of whales legally hunted and used. God knows there pages of "Moby Dick" where Melville talks about the uses of whales.
#17
Old 07-05-2010, 12:03 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by si_blakely View Post
I suspect that somewhere in a warehouse at NASA there is a dusty barrel of "Space Lubricant No. 9" dating back to the 60s, with an unknown composition (but possibly including whale oil) but a very specific set of operating parameters. They keep tapping that barrel - eventually they will run out and have to search for a suitable synthetic replacement, but until then, they will just keep using it.

Si
I know where there is at least one barrel of legally harvested whale oil in the US. The company I worked at for 30 years rendered whales in the 60's when it was still legal, long before I started working there. All the while I worked there we still refered to the little dock on the river as the whale dock. We had a bone that looked like a giant wishbone about 20 ft high, I think it was a jaw bone.

And in the back of our dusty mezzanine was a barrel of whale oil. It was there the whole time I worked there, up until 2007. I asked why we kept it and was told, 'because there isn't any more', we never tried to sell it. By this time the company was producing organic fertilizers and the last thing they needed was a connection to harvesting whales.

The plant is mostly mothballed now and I'll bet that barrel of whale oil is still there.
#18
Old 07-05-2010, 12:23 PM
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A friend of mine who used to be a HST scientist/support scientist, has this to say on the matter (I asked him about it earlier, as someone else asked me about it!)

Quote:
Weird! I'd never heard of this, whether it's a rumor or not. But there are at least two places for oils of some kind: inside the "reaction wheels" and gyroscopes. The reaction wheels are wheels that are used for slewing the telescope around. Rather than using a rocket motor, we have massive wheels with electric motors on them. Turn the wheel one way, and thanks to Newton's 3rd Law, the spacecraft spins the other way. I don't know whether these have any kind of oil in them, but I'd imagine they do at some level.

The gyroscopes definitely do. In fact, we had a MAJOR problem with them until this last Servicing Mission. As I recall, the oil being used to lubricate them was slightly corrosive, and it wound up eating away at some part of the gyroscope. In the end, we were down to just two functioning gyros, out of a total of 6! (One for each axis, plus one back-up for each axis)

So there are two places you might find whale oil used. Now, as far as what *kind* of oil... Well, it wouldn't be put in the HST User's Manual. Too hardware-specific. It might be in a technical report, which can be searched here:

http://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?N=0&Ns=HarvestDate%7C1

I looked for reports on "hubble" (or "HST") and "gyroscope," but the one that might talk most specifically about gyroscope design is from 1988 and is only available in paper copies:

http://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=10...%257c1%26N%3D0



Looking around, the source of the rumor seems to be a book called _Whale_, reviewed in the L.A. Times here:
http://articles.latimes.com/2010/feb...25-2010feb25/2

I looked in the book itself (via Amazon) and found only a vague, unsourced statement about the Hubble:

http://amazon.com/Whale-Search-G...3449803&sr=8-1

No references, no quote. Seems to be a theater-focused writer, so I'm not sure how reliable a writer he is on history and science. The LA Times is critical of him on some minor points, and I could pick out a factual error in a brief quote they made. (The American buffalo did NOT become extinct!)

So anyway, it's entirely possible that Hoare's claim that sperm whale oil is *so* good at very low temps that it's used for spacecraft, and that somewhere there are aging stockpiles of whale oil from a half century ago that the gyroscope builders could tap into.

But then again, the Hubble isn't all that low a temperature (direct sunlight half the time!), and you've got to have cryogenics in it to keep the IR systems working.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more skeptical I am, just because the HST isn't at extreme cold.
#19
Old 07-05-2010, 12:30 PM
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They have to something with all those Sperm Whales mysteriously falling out of the sky.
#20
Old 07-05-2010, 03:48 PM
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Originally Posted by Chimera View Post
They have to something with all those Sperm Whales mysteriously falling out of the sky.
But those bowls of petunias have no value whatsoever.

Si
#21
Old 07-05-2010, 04:54 PM
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Originally Posted by si_blakely View Post
But those bowls of petunias have no value whatsoever.

Si
Oh no, not again.
#22
Old 07-05-2010, 05:21 PM
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Originally Posted by Digital Stimulus View Post
...my wife is a space (lunar) scientist...and at dinner sat next to Jim Head. In conversation (specifically about Japan's whaling industry), he mentioned that yes, NASA does use a small amount of whale oil for lubrication in some equipment.
I just remembered to ask my wife for details, only to discover that Dr. Head did not say that. Our discussion touched on conversations she had both with Dr. Head and a Greenpeace person she spoke to at the airport -- IIRC (now in doubt), we were discussing the Gulf oil leak, the use of remote sensing in determining the extent and composition of the leak, and Dr. Head's involvement in that research, which then spun into other environmental topics. Notably, whaling and its (possible) uses; she didn't have any other details.

Coming from the Greenpeace guy rather than a NASA scientist certainly takes away credibility from the claim, and I had to correct my previous post.
#23
Old 07-05-2010, 11:32 PM
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Nye Lubricants, started in my hometown by William F. Nye in 1844 and still located here today, is known as the "last American whale oil company."

It used to supply NASA with whale oil, most likely from the blackfish, which the company was still buying until the Marine Mammals Protection Act in 1972. Nye then continued to sell from its stock of whale oil into the 1980s.

It only sells synthetic oils now.

Whale oil was useful for lubricating fine machinery such as watches because it stayed liquid at lower temperatures than other natural oils that were available before petroleum products.

NASA could very well have a supply of the old stuff on hand.
#24
Old 07-06-2010, 06:23 AM
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My understanding is that oils are generally not used as lubricants in a vacuum. The reason is that the lighter fractions of the oil tend to evaporate leaving the heavier fractions which harden and become sort of an anti-lubricant. For this reason, graphite-based lubricants were developed for use in vacuum.

Now there may be some oils which are usable in a vacuum and for all I know, some kind of whale oil may be one of them. But if NASA had used some in the early days, I'd be surprised if they haven't developed a substitute.
#25
Old 07-06-2010, 08:07 AM
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Whale oil was a commonly used and highly regarded lubricant until surprisingly recently -- as Vern and ghardstermention. One place I worked at still had a container of it, and I was able to ask for a sample. Nowadays, of course, you really can't get it, and AFAIK no one uses it. I'd be extremely surprised if it was used in any space system, because it would probably outgas like mad in vacuum. I've built space-qualified systems for use in vacuum, and they're extremely strict about what they'll allow in such systems. I don't know for a fat that whale oil isn't allowed -- I'd just be extremely surprised if it was permitted.as has been mentioned, dry lubricants are more commonly used.
#26
Old 07-06-2010, 12:09 PM
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Quote:
Since it doesn't freeze in sub-zero temperatures, spermaceti was used in Nasa's space missions no substitute could be found for this natural lubricant. Even now, the Hubble space telescope and the Voyager space probe are careening into infinity, oiled by whales.
It doesn't freeze in sub-zero temperatures? ANY sub-zero temperatures? Holy cow, it violates the laws of physics?
#27
Old 07-06-2010, 04:10 PM
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Chrysler uses an additive for trak-loc or posi rear ends that was originally made of sperm whale oil. About 10 years ago they changed to a sythetic replacement for it, but reviewing the msds sheet on it but it doesn't list a freezing piont. The flash point is 351 f if that is a help. I suspect as far as space goes it's going to be from one extreme to another so the freezing point would be a significant factor.
#28
Old 07-06-2010, 07:28 PM
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Originally Posted by Sailboat View Post
It doesn't freeze in sub-zero temperatures? ANY sub-zero temperatures? Holy cow, it violates the laws of physics?
And you think randomly appearing high altitude whales don't violate the laws of physics?

Obviously it is total BS, because there's no way it doesn't become a solid at the low temperatures reached in space.
#29
Old 07-06-2010, 07:57 PM
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Originally Posted by Chimera View Post
Obviously it is total BS, because there's no way it doesn't become a solid at the low temperatures reached in space.
Well, people should become solid at the low temperatures reached in space, but they don't, do they. . .
#30
Old 07-06-2010, 08:33 PM
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Originally Posted by VernWinterbottom View Post
Well, people should become solid at the low temperatures reached in space, but they don't, do they. . .
#31
Old 07-06-2010, 08:55 PM
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Originally Posted by Chimera View Post
I think the point is that objects in Earth orbit do not necesarily become cold. They constantly radiate heat away into space, which all things being equal would carry on till they were only a few degrees above absolute zero. But they also receive energy from the Sun for at least half the time and quite possibly more, depending on their orbits.
#32
Old 07-06-2010, 09:22 PM
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True enough, but, although I didn't find the information on the Hubble offhand, I did find the information on it's replacement;

"Webb's operating temperature is less than 50 degrees above absolute zero: 50 Kelvin, (-225 Celcius, or -370 deg F). "

This is just below Liquid Oxygen (50.5 kelvin), or Liquid Nitrogen (77 k), so it seems rather unlikely that whale oil is anything but a solid at these temperatures.
#33
Old 07-06-2010, 09:45 PM
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Originally Posted by Jinx View Post
How else are you going to make the whale fit in the spaceship???
They aren't using 'whale oil', they're using wail oil: The grease obtained from especially slick jazz horn solos.
#34
Old 07-06-2010, 09:51 PM
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Originally Posted by Chimera View Post
And you think randomly appearing high altitude whales don't violate the laws of physics?

Obviously it is total BS, because there's no way it doesn't become a solid at the low temperatures reached in space.
And what a lot of people in this thread are missing is that Hubble simply does not get cold enough to make whale oil a necessity anyway...
#35
Old 07-07-2010, 07:55 PM
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The OP asked if whale oil is or was used in space. It could very well have been, since Nye Lubricants today advertises in its literature that its synthetic oils are/were used on the Space Shuttle, and, as I mentioned earlier, Nye was still distributing whale oil to lubricate fine machinery into the 1980s.

Whether or not it was BS, Nye always touted its whale oil as superior for clocks and watches, because the oil did not gum up at lower tempertures. In the early 1900s Joseph K. Nye set up at refinery in St. Albans, VT, to "cold refine" porpoise jaw oil.

There are also other uses for oils besides fuel and lubrication. Some of Nye's synthetic oils are used in the lenses of traffic lights to help transmit light somehow.

What the OP heard may have been a slight misinterpretation based on a nugget of truth. It's very likely that at least until recently, if not at the present time, whale oil has been used in space vehicles and/or satelites.
#36
Old 07-08-2010, 03:16 AM
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Originally Posted by KCB615 View Post
Oh no, not again.
So long, and thanks for all the fish! [ba da bump]
#37
Old 07-08-2010, 03:24 AM
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Originally Posted by Chimera View Post
True enough, but, although I didn't find the information on the Hubble offhand, I did find the information on it's replacement;

"Webb's operating temperature is less than 50 degrees above absolute zero: 50 Kelvin, (-225 Celcius, or -370 deg F). "

This is just below Liquid Oxygen (50.5 kelvin), or Liquid Nitrogen (77 k), so it seems rather unlikely that whale oil is anything but a solid at these temperatures.
That's the "operating temperature" of it's infrared optical sensor, not the telescope itself. It's environment will be considerably higher, and so the sensor has to be cooled to that temp. You were seeing info on the temp the sensor needs to be cooled to. It's irrelevant to the "whale oil" question.
#38
Old 07-08-2010, 03:36 AM
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Originally Posted by scr4 View Post

For what it's worth, I'm a space scientist and I've never heard of using whale oil. But it's possible I'm not old enough to have come across it - I was in high school when Hubble was launched.
I am old enough to have been one of the first employees at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute. Wait! I was!

I also had the pleasure of working on several other satellite programs of that era out of Goddard Space Flight Center, focusing on the mechanics and physics of the systems that maintained flight attitude (e.g. pitch roll yaw). I also did some time in the lab of a future astronaut ("mission specialist" IIRC is the title).

While I was not involved in actually building or testing the hardware, I am a software guy - too bad big mirror guys! - this thread is the absolute first time I ever heard such a claim about whale oil.
#39
Old 07-08-2010, 03:46 AM
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Originally Posted by not_alice View Post
I am old enough to have been one of the first employees at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute. Wait! I was!
Missed edit window, but....

... the post with the quote from the Hubble Scientist reads about right to my eyes and strikes me as pretty much the way conversation went there on a routine basis.
#40
Old 07-08-2010, 08:04 AM
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Originally Posted by not_alice View Post
Missed edit window, but....

... the post with the quote from the Hubble Scientist reads about right to my eyes and strikes me as pretty much the way conversation went there on a routine basis.
Its the way conversation at a facility rather similar to GSFC goes too!
#41
Old 07-04-2013, 03:04 PM
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Originally Posted by PlainJain View Post
Yep, powered is their word not mine. I assumed it was used as a lubricant. I'm curious, if true how would they legally obtain it?
Sorry but I just watched a rerun of the episode in question. It says the Hubble Space Telescope runs on whale, not that it is powered by it.
#42
Old 07-05-2013, 12:27 PM
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Here's the Wiki page on Whale Oil. The only modern use was in car automatic transmission fluid up until the 1980s.
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