On February 8, 2015, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is set to launch aboard a Falcon 9 at 6:10 pm ET (3:10 pm PT) from Cape Canaveral, FL. This launch is highly and doubly significant: DSCOVR’s primary mission is to give advance warning of solar winds and magnetic fields before they reach the Earth and cause geomagnetic storms. This is absolutely crucial to preserving the national security and economy, which heavily depend on advanced technology that would be severely disrupted. In addition, this launch will be SpaceX’s second attempt to land the first stage of a Falcon 9 in reusable condition on a specific target.
A news conference covering the upcoming launch was held on February 7, 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center. Panelists represented the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, the US Air Force and SpaceX.
Stephen Volz, NOAA Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services along with Thomas Berger, Director, Space Weather Prediction Center, pointed out that DSCOVR will be the first NOAA operational space weather satellite in deep space. Volz gave some mission history: DSCOVR was born as Triana, which was to have been launched in 2003 but was cancelled around 2001 and put in storage. There it remained in a clean room until NASA and NOAA pulled it out, tested it so it met NOAA space weather mission requirements. A partnership was born in which NOAA has leadership of the mission; NASA, funded by NOAA, refurbished the craft and instruments, which are in good working order; and the Air Force is working with SpaceX to provide launch services. Col D Jason Cothern, Chief, Space Demonstrations Division, USAF, noted that this mission is the USAF’s first with SpaceX. Having so many agencies brings different perspectives, resources and expertise.
Why was the Falcon 9 chosen as opposed to a Delta or Atlas rocket? DSCOVR was determined to be a moderate-risk experimental satellite (compared with, for example, the James Webb Space Telescope). This was a great opportunity for SpaceX to collaborate on a mission with the USAF.
So why is DSCOVR’s mission so crucial? Geomagnetic storms can severely disrupt aviation, GPS, telecommunications, and the power grid. Thomas Berger, Director, Space Weather Prediction Center, described DSCOVR as a “tsunami buoy” that would give an hour’s warning of coronal mass ejections. DSCOVR’s early warning capabilities will give time to take precautions: for example, planes flying near the magnetic poles can be redirected, and power companies can take steps to minimize damage to power transmission equipment. Data will be used to create new models of the Earth’s magnetosphere, and we will be able to assess magnetic storm impact on a regional basis, not just planetary. (Unfortunately, DSCOVR will not be in a good location to warn astronauts on interplanetary flights about solar storms.)
Steven Clarke, Director of the Joint Agency Satellite Division (JASD) in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Washington added that DSCOVR will have a secondary mission: to analyze atmospheric aerosol and ozone, and the radiation balance of the earth.
After DSCOVR is released from the Falcon 9 rocket, the Falcon 9 first stage will make two burns before attempting its landing on a drone ship. Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s Vice President of Mission Assurance, assured the audience that SpaceX had fixed the problems from the first landing, although he noted “I don’t see it as a failure at all” and that there will be many opportunities for improvement. At the same time, Koenigsmann emphasized that the Falcon 9 landing is only the second objective—the first being the successful launch of DSCOVR. He added in response to the inevitable question of live landing video coverage that there would be no live video of the landing on the drone ship. It will be recorded on the drone ship, and Koenigsmann added “we will share it eventually…or not,” which prompted laughter from the audience.
Once DSCOVR is launched, the craft will take 110 days to reach its orbit around Lagrange 1, where it will be a million miles from the earth and 91 million miles away from the sun, and in line with both. After a 40-day checkout period of systems on board after reaching L1, the mission will be handed off to NOAA. DSCOVR will start to capture solar wind data in real time and transmit it to the Earth in real time to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. DSCOVR’s location at L1 exposes it to solar winds an hour before they reach the Earth. Full-resolution images of the Earth’s sunlit disc will be taken 4-6 times a day and then downlinked, with the images posted on a public website a day later. Data will be available at the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center website.
At L1, DSCOVR will join the aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), launched in 1997 and well past its prime but still operating. DSCOVR’s forecast time will be comparable to ACE, because of the similar location. However, DSCOVR’s measurements will be faster and more reliable. In addition, DSCOVR will be more robust to radiation. The primary mission timeframe has been given an underestimation of 2 years, although that will depend on the estimate of fuel for station-keeping. A good insertion and orbit could add to the life of the mission; the hoped-for timeframe would extend well beyond 5 years.