DSCOVR Ready at Last for January 2015 Launch – UPDATE

DSCOVR Ready at Last for January 2015 Launch – UPDATE

UPDATE, December 29, 2014:  NOAA announced today that the launch has been postponed to no earlier than January 29, 2015.

ORIGINAL STORY, December 18, 2014:  At a press conference this morning, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA celebrated the upcoming launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR).  A spacecraft built in the 1990s and then put into storage for almost a decade, DSCOVR was reinvented to meet both space weather and earth science observational needs.

Originally called Triana, DSCOVR is slated for a January 23, 2015 launch on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  NOAA’s Doug Whiteley, deputy director at the Office of Systems Development at NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, said today that NOAA is in close contact with the Air Force and has not been told that the January 23 launch will be impacted by today’s postponement of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch to the International Space Station.  Whiteley added that NOAA would be monitoring the situation and “will see how it plays out in coming weeks.”

Whiteley said DSCOVR has had “quite a journey” already.  It was conceived by then-Vice President Al Gore in the mid-1990s, but was later beset by political opposition because of Gore’s involvement and sat in storage during the George W. Bush Administration.  It was resurrected by the Obama Administration.

Today, DSCOVR is a tri-agency partnership among NOAA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force (USAF).  NOAA is in charge of the program and paid for refurbishing the spacecraft and its space weather instruments. The work was performed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA paid for refurbishing two earth science instruments it originally built.  USAF is providing the launch service with SpaceX.  NOAA will operate DSCOVR.

Whiteley said the total cost of DSCOVR from all the partners over all the years — including  storage, refurbishment, and launch – is $340 million.

After launch, DSCOVR will undergo testing during the 110 days it takes to reach its destination – the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point about one million miles from Earth.  DSCOVR is the nation’s first operational space weather satellite and will continue observations currently taken by NASA’s scientific research satellite Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), launched in 1997.  Despite “performing admirably,” as Whiteley said today, ACE is considerably past its design lifetime and officials are anxious to get DSCOVR in place to ensure continuity of observations before ACE fails. Once DSCOVR is operational, ACE will likely be relegated to a “back up status.”

NOAA officials stressed the importance of maintaining monitoring and forecasting capabilities for space weather, which Whiteley said threatens “every major infrastructure system.”  Douglas Biesecker, DSCOVR program scientist at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), described the “wide-ranging impacts” of space weather to national infrastructure including aviation and the national power grid.  A recent seminar by the Secure World Foundation and the American Astronautical Society spelled out why monitoring space weather is critical.

SWPC is the official source for space weather watches, warnings and alerts and provides free information services and products to over 40,000 customers. DSCOVR will allow SWPC to issue an hour’s warning before solar storms reach Earth. Data from the system, along with a new forecast model, will also allow SWPC to forecast regional geomagnetic storms for the first time.

Biesecker emphasized that space weather “happens all the time.” In fact, Biesecker talked about a small solar storm on its way to Earth today. While the power industry – a major customer of SWPC information products – will “fairly likely” need to respond to this event, the risk of impact is low. Because SWPC customers are able to receive warnings and take action to minimize disruptions, “impacts are never really felt,” said Biesecker. Without the warnings, however, users would notice as systems begin to fail.

While DSCOVR’s primary goal is its space weather mission, it also carries two earth science instruments. Originally built for the Triana mission, the instruments will take “innovative measurements from a novel perspective,” said Richard Eckman, DSCOVR program scientist at NASA. NASA scientists will combine DSCOVR measurements, including those of ozone, cloud height, and aerosol distribution, with observations from earth science satellites in low earth orbit. The hope is the combination of data will lead to improved earth science products, such as more accurate measurements of Earth’s global daytime radiation budget.

The big issue right now is when DSCOVR will launch. The Falcon 9 CRS-5 mission for NASA that was scheduled for tomorrow now will take place no earlier than January 6.  Whether that means a similar slip to the DSCOVR launch date is something NOAA is watching closely.  DSCOVR has an “instantaneous” launch window – whatever day and time the launch is set, it either goes or it does not, there is no “window.”  If a problem develops close to launch, DSCOVR can be on the launch pad for up to three days at a time, but then would have to go through a “recycle” that could take several days.

The key is that DSCOVR is closer to launch than it has been in over a decade.

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