After 15 years, DSCOVR is headed to deep space to defend against solar storms

It may have taken three launch attempts, but NASA's DSCOVR satellite finally launched yesterday

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After 15 years and multiple delays, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft is on its way to deep space. Launching atop a Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket, DSCOVR leapt off the pad at Space Launch Complex 40 and took to the skies at 6:03PM ET yesterday. The rocket’s stage and payload fairing separations were backlit by a gorgeous sunset.

DSCOVR is a joint collaboration between NASA, NOAA, and the US Air Force, each responsible for one-third of the $340 million price tag. NOAA served as the mission manager, NASA handled the science instruments, while the Air Force selected the vehicle that would propel DSCOVR into deep space. Based on mission requirements, the Air Force selected SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket as the launch vehicle.

Today’s flight was a pathfinder mission for SpaceX, which hopes to gain more government contracts in the future. It is also a mission of firsts — first venture beyond geostationary orbit (GEO) for NOAA, first deep space mission for the agency, and the first mission with SpaceX as the launch provider.

DSCOVR started as an Earth science mission. Now, though, it’s our planet’s new line of defense against solar storms. The refrigerator-sized satellite — stationed one million miles from Earth — is designed to provide advanced warning against solar flares that could result in damaging geomagnetic storms.

Geomagnetic storms can flood power grids with additional electric currents, potentially blowing transformers and even resulting in complete power grid failure. Communication systems, such as GPS and cell phones, and transatlantic flights can be disrupted by these storms. Space weather, like Earth weather, is ranked on a scale of low to high-risk. The Geomagnetic scale ranges from G1 (low-risk) to G5 (high-risk). Any storm ranked G3 or higher has the potential for damage on Earth.

think of dscovr as a high-tech tsunami buoy

Think of DSCOVR as a high-tech tsunami buoy — providing 15–60 minutes of lead time for incoming severe space weather. That gives us time to prepare for whatever the Sun will spew at us. And that’s crucial, since space weather and geomagnetic storms are proven threats to virtually every major public infrastructure we have, and could potentially cause billions of dollars worth of damage.

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A photo from the launch (NASA)

DSCOVR will end up at the Lagrange Point 1, or L1 for short, 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth. Once there, it will orbit the Sun four times further out into space than the Moon.

Like most of us, the DSCOVR satellite has a complicated past. The mission initially was conceived with a different purpose by then-Vice President Al Gore, and dubbed Triana, for Rodrigo de Triana, the first European sailor to "discover" the Americas since the Viking era. The original focus of the mission was to find out the amount of heat that’s trapped in our atmosphere — a key measurement in the fight against global warming. The Triana mission was first developed in 1998, but when Gore lost the presidential election in 2000, the project was suspended and the satellite was put in storage.

when gore lost the presidential election in 2000, the project was suspended and the satellite was put in storage

Thanks to the lobbying efforts of Senator Bill Nelson, the Democrat from Florida who in 1986 spent six days orbiting the Earth on the space shuttle Columbia; Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland; and many hardworking scientists, the mission was brought before the Committee of Space Environmental Sensor Mitigation Options, an off-shoot of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 2008.

"Bill Nelson was a behind-the-scenes ninja working hard to get DSCOVR to fly," Gore tells The Verge.

Because of that meeting, the mission was revived later that year, when NOAA commissioned NASA to test and refurbish the dormant satellite — and as a result, the 15-year-old satellite is in better shape today than when it was put into storage. The upgraded satellite got a new name, and a new mission: DSCOVR’s main purpose now is space weather.

But the original idea survives as a secondary mission objective. We’ll get a more accurate picture of Earth’s energy budget, too. Currently, there are satellites designed to study the amount of energy the Earth receives from the Sun; however, DSCOVR will be the first satellite designed to measure the amount of energy reflected back into space from the Earth. The difference between these two numbers will accurately tell us how much energy is trapped in our atmosphere. That information will give scientists will a more complete image of global warming and climate change.

nelson gore

Bill Nelson, left, with Al Gore (Amy Thompson)

That’s not all: expect some spectacular Earth views. One of the instruments on board DSCOVR is the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera, also known as "EPIC". This camera is designed to capture daily views of the sunlit side of Earth. One of EPIC’s tasks is providing daily pictures of the Earth — as seen from 1 million miles away. Forty-seven years ago, humanity got its the first look at our home planet from space as the crew of Apollo 8 beamed back the now famous "Earthrise" image. At L1, DSCOVR and its EPIC camera are situated at a distance of four times that of Earth to the Moon, so the images beamed back will be like none we have ever seen before. The images will be available to the public starting in late July to early August, after the satellite is fully operational, and can be viewed here.

"We had a different perspective of ourselves when we saw Earth for the first time from the lunar orbit looking back," says Nelson, in an interview with The Verge. "Our planet was only as large as a thumbnail, and this really showed us our relationship to the cosmos."

The photos from EPIC will help in the study of atmospheric aerosols, which are tiny particles in the air. They come in many varieties, both natural and artificial — but the suspended particles can include dust and pollutants, known factors in making asthma and allergies worse.

the mission is also important for spacex.

The mission is also important for SpaceX, which is trying to create reusable rockets.Their Falcon 9 v1.1 is a two-stage vehicle: the first stage powered by nine Merlin 1D engines, roughly equivalent to one of the five engines on the mighty Saturn V rocket; the second stage is powered by just one of those engines. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk named the rocket after the famed Millennium Falcon from the Star Wars franchise.

Last month, SpaceX attempted to land the Falcon’s first stage on a floating barge — a world first. In order to facilitate the landing, deployable grid fins were added to the first stage, to help with steering. The fins are powered by hydraulic fluid, which ran out prematurely during the first attempt, resulting in the first stage crashing into the side of the drone ship.

Initially, SpaceX said it would try a second landing attempt with the Falcon, after the DSCOVR launch. But the drone ship lost one of its stabilizing engines, and the seas were choppy. After the launch, Musk tweeted that first stage landed "nicely vertical" in the ocean.

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One of the drone ships used by SpaceX (SpaceX)

SpaceX will have to wait until March or April before it can attempt another landing on one of the two barges they’ve named for spaceships in Ian M. Banks’ novel The Player of Games. The company is also scheduled to launch a rocket on February 28, but the Falcon used in that flight doesn’t have landing legs.

The barges are just the first step. The next goal for SpaceX is a landing pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida — the repurposed launch pad SLC–13, which was first used in 1958 to launch Atlas missiles. That site is the most-used and longest-serving of the original Atlas launch pads; the pad was last used in 1978 and labeled a historic site in 1984. The site deteriorated over the years, and currently nothing remains but a pile of rubble after the blockhouse was demolished in 2012. SpaceX is leasing the site for five years from the Air Force.

On the bank of the causeway, you wait — will this be the time?

Years of delays plagued the DSCOVR mission — and delays even carried over to the launch pad. On the bank of the causeway, with just about three miles of water between you and the pad, you wait — will this be the time? Then you see it, a bright flash of light as the engines ignite and the vehicle rises off the pad. At that point, about 30 seconds after launch, you can hear and feel the shockwave from the rocket travel across the causeway. Emotion hits you just like the wave of sound from the rocket: an almost overwhelming sense of accomplishment. Not because you played a part in this launch, but because it is satisfying to witness.

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DSCOVR takes off (NASA)

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