Space journalists can be prone to hyperbole. We say things are awesome and mind-blowing. We talk about billions and trillions. We rattle on about theories of everything.
And this is all fitting. Space encompasses everything that isn’t Earth: countless planets and moons and stars, governed by rules and forces we still barely understand.
But perhaps all this amazingness gets tiring. Perhaps readers ask: This new mission, this new satellite—is it really that incredible?
Well. In this specific case, I can assure you: The satellite DSCOVR (pronounced discover), now scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Tuesday, February 10, is amazing. It has a story that could not have come from anywhere other than the last two decades of American history, and its launch—and subsequent flight and operational career—are absolutely worth your attention. Here’s why.
1. It came to Al Gore in a dream.
As Air & Space Magazine writes, [DSCOVR] “was born one night in February 1998, when then vice president Al Gore bolted out of bed with a vision of providing ‘a clearer view of our world.’” Gore was inspired by imagery from the Apollo missions, and, it seems specifically, The Blue Marble, the first photo of the entire sunlit Earth at once.
Gore loved The Blue Marble. He hung a picture of it in his office. But then, as today, getting new versions of the Blue Marble—pictures of what the entire sunlit planet looked like today—wasn’t easy. We don’t have astronauts going back and forth to the moon anymore.
Instead, we make Photoshopped versions. Modern-day Blue Marble-like photos have to be stitched together from composite images. (The default iPhone background is one of these composites.) True whole-Earth photographs are rare. The most recent Blue Marble-like photos I can think of were captured in October by a Chinese probe and December by a Japanese weather satellite.
Gore wanted a satellite specifically tasked with taking a picture of the whole Earth. And he wanted a feed from that satellite to live-stream to the Internet.
2. Internally, NASA called it “GoreSat.”
GORESAT. I mean. Come on.
Gore met with the director of NASA, and the director estimated that the entire project—satellite, live-feed, bandwidth at 1990s prices—could work for only tens of millions of dollars. The proposal went forward.
3. DSCOVR will sit in the center of a solar gravitational gire called the first Lagrangian Point.
One of Gore’s ideas for this satellite was that it would sit at the first Lagrangian point.
Lagrangian points—or Lagrange points, or libration points (they have a lot of names)—are a little-known phenomenon of orbiting planets and moons. They work something like calm points in the galactic firmament, kept stable by gyres and eddies, but they’re created by invisible waves millions of miles across.
They are small areas in a solar or planetary system where something can maintain its position without exerting a lot of power, because two other bodies are exerting equal amounts of gravitational force on it. There’s one of these—called L1—between the Earth and the Sun.
That’s where DSCOVR will sit.
(Other Lagrangian points are located on the far side of Earth; on the far side of the sun; and within Earth’s orbit, 60° above and behind the planet. Lagrangian points aren’t specific to Earth, either: Saturn’s moon Calypso trails its moon Tethys at the L5 point.)
We already have one satellite at L1, called ACE, which monitors solar weather. DSCOVR will monitor solar weather too.
4. And then Goresat was postponed!
Except it wasn’t called Goresat—or DSCOVR—at the time. It was called Triana, after Rodrigo de Triana, the first of Christopher Columbus’s men to spot North America.
It also wasn’t just a live-feed of Earth. By that time, the project had grown to include new views of Earth, including special sensors that would monitor important climate variables. But Triana was still attached to the vice president’s name, reputation, and imminent presidential campaign, and Republicans weren’t having it. Wrote The New York Times in June 1999:
On May 13, the Republican-controlled House Science Committee voted 21 to 18 along party lines to send a $41.2 billion, three-year NASA authorization bill to the full House without Triana financing. The measure included an amendment by Representative Dave Weldon, Republican of Florida, who called Triana ''a multimillion-dollar screen saver'' and ''tripe science,'' that shifted money for the project to other research.
The satellite was eventually built and ready for launch. But under the incoming Bush administration, its mission was postponed and it was put in a closet.
5. Politics is boring so let’s talk about the SPACEPORT DRONE SHIP.
A Falcon 9 rocket, contracted by the U.S. Air Force and constructed by SpaceX—that’s billionaire tycoon Elon Musk’s private space company—will loft DSCOVR to the first Lagrangian point. Falcon 9 is a two stage rocket: The first stage will burn for a little under three minutes, then fall to Earth; the second stage will have a short burn and a long burn and give DSCOVR the force it needs to reach L1.
But let’s talk about the first stage.
After the first stage separates, it will turn itself 180° around and descend back to Earth. Then, it will attempt to land itself upright and in one piece on an unmanned barge sitting in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
I have heard no one refer to this kind of vessel as anything but “the drone ship,” although its official name is autonomous spaceport drone ship.
SpaceX has tried to land rockets on drone ships before. Once before. In January.
It did not work.
SpaceX believes that that first test failed because the Falcon didn’t have enough hydraulic fluid—basically, that it couldn’t buy itself time to maneuver its way to safety. On this flight, the first-stage rocket has been given more fluid, though its flight will be more difficult. It will approach the drone ship faster and at a greater angle of attack than it did last month.
The drone ship has been named Just Read the Instructions after planet-sized starships in the novels of science-fiction writer Iain M. Banks.
6. Space weather. Space weather!
Politics again. Around 2008, NASA realized it had a satellite sitting in the closet and began to re-examine its mission and capabilities. If DSCOVR could sit at L1, it could help extend the mission of our satellite which is already there, called ACE.
ACE monitors “space weather”—or, really, the solar wind. The sun periodically if unpredictably releases charged particles into space around it. On Earth, this plasma appears as the aurora, the Northern Lights and the Southern Lights. Especially strong space storms are called coronal mass ejections, which can damage satellites, aircraft flying near the poles, and the electrical power grid on the ground.
ACE can give the U.S. government about an hour’s warning as to when a coronal mass ejection is imminent. This gives NOAA, which monitors space weather, time to warn other governments and affected private industries; it also gives the Air Force time to prepare.
But ACE is old. It has been sitting at L1 since 1997. On Sunday, a NOAA spokesman said it was “well past its prime lifetime.”
Triana was a satellite meant to sit at L1. NASA collaborated with NOAA and the U.S. Air Force to retrofit it and give it the sensors needed to track space weather. It also renamed it: Triana became DSCOVR. And the satellite’s primary mission was switched, too: It would now mostly monitor space weather, with a secondary mission of observing the Earth. With ACE and DSCOVR’s powers combined, NOAA would be able to predict the effects of solar storms on specific regions of the country and world, something it can’t do right now.
The three agencies wound up splitting the spacecraft’s $340 million cost equally.
Here, by the way, is the government’s pre-launch press conference for DSCOVR. If you like somewhat-doofy government, space-related press conferences, I cannot recommend this one more highly. Be sure to note that most of the government spokesmen are wearing lapel pins with their respective agency’s logo.
7. We still get a Blue Marble every few hours!
But even though it is DSCOVR’s secondary mission, the satellite will still photograph the entire Earth several times a day, using its Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) device. DSCOVR will beam its Earth-observing data to the NASA flight facility at Wallops Island, Virginia, and the agency hopes to post the photos of the whole Earth the next day.
And then that will just be something we have: full color photos of the “full, sunlit disc” of Earth. The planet in its entirety. The pictures will not be great—the satellite, although updated, was built in the late 1990s—but they’ll be more than we have right now. (The EPIC device will sense other things, too. Its camera captures narrow bands of light that betray the presence of “ozone, aerosols, dust and volcanic ash, cloud height, or vegetation cover” on the planet.)
Former Vice President Gore wanted a live-stream of Blue Marble images partly to remind the public that we live on a planet. That is what the Blue Marble, widely considered to be the most-reproduced image in the history of the world, has done. Some scholars consider it the image that ignited modern environmental and humanitarian movements.
But for all the popularity of the Blue Marble image, we only have a few of them. The most famous example is that first one, snapped by astronauts returning from the last Apollo mission to the moon in December 1972.
DSCOVR will take more than 100 days to reach L1, a location more than 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. But once there, we will have new image more than once a day, and they will be free online.