NOAA’s New Deep Space Solar Monitoring Satellite Launches

DSCOVR launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on February 11, 2015. Image Credit: NASA

DSCOVR launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on February 11, 2015. Image Credit: NASA

February 12, 2015 – NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida on February 11, at 4:03 p.m. MST on its way to an orbit one million miles from Earth. DSCOVR will give NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) forecasters more reliable measurements of solar wind conditions, improving their ability to monitor potentially harmful solar activity.

When it reaches its final destination about 110 days from now, and after it completes a series of initialization checks, DSCOVR will be the nation’s first operational satellite in deep space, orbiting between Earth and the Sun at a point called the Lagrange point, or L1. It will take its place at L1 alongside NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) research satellite, replacing the 17-year old ACE as America’s primary warning system for solar magnetic storms headed towards Earth. Meanwhile, ACE will continue its important role in space weather research.

Data from DSCOVR, coupled with a new forecast model that is set to come online later this year, will enable NOAA forecasters to predict geomagnetic storm magnitude on a regional basis. Geomagnetic storms occur when plasma and magnetic fields streaming from the sun impact Earth’s magnetic field. Large magnetic eruptions from the sun have the potential to bring major disruptions to power grids, aviation, telecommunications, and GPS systems.

“Located in line between the sun and the Earth, DSCOVR will be a point of early warning whenever it detects a surge of energy that could trigger a geomagnetic storm destined for Earth,” said Stephen Volz, Ph.D., assistant administrator for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service. “According to the National Academies of Sciences, a major solar storm has the potential to cost upwards of $2 trillion, disrupting telecommunications, GPS systems, and the energy grid. As the nation’s space weather prediction agency, when DSCOVR is fully operational and our new space weather forecast models are in place, we will be able to provide vital information to industries and communities to help them prepare for these storms.”

In addition to space weather-monitoring instruments, DSCOVR is carrying two NASA Earth-observing instruments that will gather a range of measurements from ozone and aerosol amounts, to changes in Earth’s radiation.

The EPIC instrument is 30-centimeter (11.8 inch) telescope that measures 10 channels of ultraviolet and visible areas of the spectrum. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

The EPIC instrument is 30-centimeter (11.8 inch) telescope that measures 10 channels of ultraviolet and visible areas of the spectrum. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

The Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC), built by Lockheed Martin, will provide imaging of the entire sunlit side of Earth in one view, something that hasn’t been done before from a satellite. The instrument will provide scientists with a broad view of the planet’s atmosphere at work. Using EPIC, scientists can monitor clouds and atmospheric particles moving across hemispheres, which will improve models for storms, droughts, dust, pollution and global climate.

“Never before has one instrument been able to capture the entire face of the Earth, to see weather at work on a global scale,” said Joe Mobilia, EPIC program manager at Lockheed Martin. “Even though EPIC will operate over a million miles away, it will deliver data about our atmosphere and vegetation that scientists have been waiting for. Climate affects every person, so better knowledge of atmospheric processes is essential to understanding what’s happening in the world around us.”

Scripps-NIST Advanced Radiometer built by Ball Aerospace for the DSCOVR mission. Image Credit: Ball Aerospace

Scripps-NIST Advanced Radiometer built by Ball Aerospace for the DSCOVR mission. Image Credit: Ball Aerospace

Ball Aerospace developed the advanced radiometer instrument – called Scripps NISTAR – working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The radiometer is designed to measure the Earth’s total reflected and emitted energy in the 0.2 to 100 micron range, and is based on the NIST electrical-substitution and Ball modular instrument controller technologies.

Ball also provided DSCOVR with the CT633 star tracker. In preparation for the mission, the tracker was recalibrated, and outfitted with an improved lightshade and software. Final verification included solar testing in the Ball Stray Light Facility.

The DSCOVR mission is a partnership between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force. NOAA will operate DSCOVR from its NOAA Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Maryland, and process the space weather data at SWPC in Boulder, Colorado, one of NOAA’s nine National Centers for Environmental Prediction. SWPC will then distribute these space weather data to users within the United States and around the world. The data will be archived at NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center also in Boulder.

NASA received funding from NOAA to refurbish the DSCOVR spacecraft and its solar wind instruments, develop the command and control portion of the ground segment, and manage launch and activation of the satellite. The Air Force funds and oversees the Falcon 9 launch services for DSCOVR. This is the first Falcon 9 mission launched for the Department of Defense. DSCOVR will also host NASA-funded secondary sensors for Earth and Space science observations. The Earth science data will be processed at NASA’s DSCOVR Science Operations Center and archived and distributed by NASA’s Atmospheric Science Data Center.

In addition to launching the DSCOVR satellite, SpaceX had intended to use this launch to attempt to recover the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX believes that recovering and reusing the first stage will ultimately cut launch costs.

While extreme weather at the landing site prevented SpaceX from attempting to recover the first stage, data shows the first stage successfully soft landed in the Atlantic Ocean within 10 meters of its target. The vehicle was nicely vertical and the data captured during this test suggests a high probability of being able to land the stage on the drone ship in better weather.

View the NASA launch video highlights at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3d1OgMkqyw

View SpaceX video of the launch at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvHJSIKP0Hg