DSCOVR Space Weather Spacecraft On Its Way to L1

DSCOVR Space Weather Spacecraft On Its Way to L1

The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft successfully lifted off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 6:03 pm ET this evening.  Once known as Triana, the spacecraft will provide data for space weather forecasting as well as earth observations after it reaches its final destination, the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point, in approximately 110 days.

The launch was delayed several times due to weather and technical issues, but today was picture perfect with the weather cooperating fully — for launch.   Unfortunately, however, it was a different story for SpaceX’s attempt to land the Falcon 9 first stage on a drone ship 400 miles out at sea.  There, a “megastorm” was underway with 30 foot swells that convinced SpaceX to recall the drone ship and support ships.  The first stage was already set to fire two reentry burns for the landing and those went ahead as planned. SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk tweeted thereafter that the “Rocket soft landed in the ocean within 10m of target & nicely vertical!  High probability of good droneship landing in non-stormy weather.”

Landing the first stage on the drone ship was a secondary objective.  Getting DSCOVR on its way was the primary objective and it was a complete success.   DSCOVR is a joint NOAA-NASA-Air Force program with a long history dating back to the 1990s when it was initiated by then Vice President Al Gore.   Gore was at the launch today and said DSCOVR will “give us a wonderful opportunity to see the beauty and fragility of our planet and, in so doing, remind us of the duty to protect our only home.”

It was that environmental message that inspired Gore in the first place.  His idea was to place a camera at the Sun-Earth L1 (SEL-1) Lagrange point to send back constant images of the sunlit side of the Earth to remind the people of the world of our planet’s fragility.  Other instruments were later added to make the mission more scientifically useful. 

SEL-1 is located between the Earth and the Sun, about 1.5 million miles from Earth.  It is already the location of spacecraft needed to observe the Sun and detect and measure particles ejected by the Sun than can have negative consequences for everything from Earth-orbiting satellites to the terrestrial power grid.  Those events are referred to as “space weather” and NOAA forecasts space weather just as it does terrestrial weather.

The spacecraft conceptualized by Gore was named Triana after a sailor, Rodrigo de Triana, on one of Columbus’s ships who first spotted North America.  The spacecraft was built and ready for launch by the end of Clinton-Gore Administration, but then fell victim to politics.  Derisively called “Goresat,” it was put into storage in 2001 when George W. Bush became President following the bitter 2000 Gore-Bush presidential election.

Originally, Triana was an earth observing spacecraft with Gore’s camera — Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) — and a radiometer to measure Earth’s albedo as the primary instruments.  Two space weather instruments were also included as secondary payloads.   At the time, space weather observations were provided by NASA’s relatively new Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE).   As the years passed, however, it became apparent that a replacement for ACE would be needed.   In 2008, NOAA successfully argued for Triana to be brought out of storage, refurbished and launched with a role reversal where space weather would be the primary mission and earth observations secondary.

Agreement was reached where NOAA would pay NASA tor refurbishing the spacecraft and the two space weather instruments (NASA is NOAA’s spacecraft acquisition agent), NASA would pay to refurbish the two earth observation instruments, and the Air Force, which also needs space weather forecasts, would pay for the launch.  NOAA renamed it DSCOVR.

Today witnessed the fruit of all those labors, though it will take 110 days for DSCOVR to reach SEL-1, and 40 days of checkout are needed before operational space weather data become available.  NOAA operates the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, CO and the data will be posted on the SWPC website.  NASA will be in charge of the earth observing instruments, including EPIC.   Images from EPIC will be posted on a NASA website with a one-day delay.

NOAA’s FY2016 budget request includes $2.5 million to begin planning for a follow-on to DSCOVR.  NASA and NOAA’s responsibilities for earth observing and space weather are undergoing changes.  The Obama Administration is proposing that NASA be responsible for all non-military satellite earth observations, while NOAA is responsible only for weather satellites, including space weather.  

Forecasting space weather is an operational task, but research is still needed to understand the Sun’s processes and their effects on Earth, a discipline called solar-terrestrial physics, solar and space physics, or heliophysics.  NASA retains responsibility for that research and is getting ready to launch the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission to further that research with a set of four earth-orbiting satellites. Launch is currently scheduled for March 12.

DSCOVR represents three “firsts”: it is NOAA’s first operational space weather satellite and its first deep space satellite, and this was SpaceX’s first deep space launch.  It will join NASA’s ACE research satellite, still working after more than 17 years on the job and long past its design lifetime, and a European spacecraft, the Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO), which carries a type of telescope called a coronagraph that provides the first indication of an eruption on the Sun.   The particles then fly past ACE, and soon DSCOVR, which collect data about intensity and polarization that in turn allows SWPC to make its forecasts.

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