• DSCOVR spacecraft at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.
     DSCOVR spacecraft at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

5 Weeks and Counting: New NOAA Weather Satellite Readies for Launch

December 19, 2014
By Sandra Jontz
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Scientists are gearing up to launch revolutionary technology into deep space that will provide the most advanced solar storm warning system to date. The spacecraft includes new research systems that also will better monitor Earth's atmosphere and land. 

Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is scheduled for launch aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on January 23 and will become the first operational spacecraft in deep space to provide weather analysis.

DSCOVR will give forecasters reliable and continuous measurements of solar wind speeds, which can improve the ability to monitor and prepare for harmful solar activity. It is a collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA and the U.S. Air Force and will replace NASA’s aged Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), launched in 1997 and operating a decade past its design life.

“We’re very excited to have this asset at our disposal to be able to fulfill this mission,” says Doug Whiteley, deputy director of the Office of Systems Development at NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service. “We’ve got quite a few firsts going on with this one: going beyond geostationary orbit for our mission, being out at L1, launching on this SpaceX vehicle. This is going to be a pretty exciting month to see all of this happen.”

DSCOVR will orbit between the Earth and sun at the L1 Lagrange point—agency parlance for the stable point in space where gravitational forces of the Earth and sun are in equilibrium, located roughly 1 million miles from Earth.

The sun storm expected to hit Earth today, December 19, likely will cause no damage to power grids or satellite communications systems. In fact, nobody except those who manage power grids should even notice, all thanks to the advanced warning giving officials a heads up of an impending solar storm. “Because our customers … react to the watches, warnings and alerts we put out, [these] impacts are never really felt,” says Douglas Biesecker, chief scientist at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. “If these warnings didn’t happen, then I think we would notice space weather having a bigger impact because systems would start to fail.”

DSCOVR carries a new system developed with scientists at the University of Michigan that will, for the first time, allow forecasters to narrow geographic impact points of solar storms. The model, slated to be operational in October 2015, should be able to narrow predictions as precise as forecasting impact to New England, for example, Biesecker explains. “Currently, forecast for space weather is for the entire planet, and everyone has to react the same way.” In addition to space weather technology, DSCOVR will carry NASA Earth-observing instruments that will be able to gather a range of measurements, from ozone and aerosol amounts, to changes in Earth's radiation that will give scientists the ability to make important and innovative measurements from the novel perspective of L1, Richard Eckman, NASA DSCOVR program scientist, says.

The products complement existing services provided by current systems already in low Earth orbit and from airborne- and ground-based instruments and will provide insights in areas such as air quality, land cover change and climate change, Eckman explains.

Onboard is the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC), which will be used to measure ozone and aerosol distribution, cloud height, vegetation properties and the ultraviolet reflectivity of Earth. It can track volcanic plumes and ash emissions, for example, measure the ozone to assess air quality issues and measure the exchange of air between the stratosphere and troposphere, Eckman says.

The launch is scheduled for 6:49 p.m. EST on January 23 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will take approximately 110 days for DSCOVR to reach L1 orbit.

Scientists didn’t have to start from scratch for DSCOVR, which replaces the Earth monitoring Traina mission that began in the late 1990s but was canceled shortly after completion. The spacecraft was put in storage in 2001. In 2008, scientists began work on DSCOVR and removed the spacecraft from storage. It was deemed still flight worthy and work began for the solar observation mission. The program, including storage, refurbishment and the impending launch, comes with a $340 million price tag.

Once operational, it will take over for ACE, which was launched in August 1997. “While ACE is still performing admirably and still providing reliable data, it is long past its design life, and getting DSCOVR on orbit before any issues arise with ACE is NOAA’s primary objective,” Whiteley says.  “Reports say ACE is doing well and does not have any major failures or issues that would prevent it from going on, but with a spacecraft of that age that was designed for only a couple-year mission, you never know when it’s going to turn.”

ACE is a research satellite and was not designed to function during all possible types of solar events. “In fact, it has failed to deliver some of its key data during about 25 percent of the most severe storms of the last solar cycle,” Biesecker explains. DSCOVR was built differently, he continues, and designed to withstand severe and extreme storms.

Solar storms have shown the potential to disrupt every major public infrastructure system, including transportation, power grids, telecommunications and global positioning. Disruptions from severe solar winds that upset Earth’s geomagnetic fields have the potential to cause between $1 trillion and $2 trillion in damages, and reports indicate that full recoveries from such events could take four to 10 years, Whiteley states.  

The continuous monitoring from DSCOVR means NOAA can send out warnings, giving users of the data about an hour’s warning before damaging solar winds reach the Earth. NOAA has 44,000 organizations registered to receive free-of-charge space weather forecasts and products via email.

Should the spacecraft not launch on January 23, officials will have two more times to try in the following days. It can remain on the launchpad for three days before it will need to be removed for crew downtime and a reassessment. If something goes wrong and the agencies lose the aircraft all together, there is no replacement waiting in the wings. The agency would have to rely on ACE for at least another 24 to 36 months before a replacement system could be created and launched.

Already, they are planning for DSCOVR’s replacement, which has a projected operational mission life of five years.

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