SpaceX embarked on their first mission beyond low earth orbit Wednesday, launching the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA.
DSCOVR’s primary mission will be to monitor the sun for solar events that could threaten communication and power infrastructure here on Earth. DSCOVR will settle into an orbit one million miles away from Earth, positioned in between the Earth and the sun. It will serve in some ways like a Tsunami buoy does in the ocean – providing enough warning so that managers on the ground can prepare satellites and other critical infrastructure for a solar storm.
“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.” Stephen Volz, Ph.D., assistant administrator for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service said in a press release.
Watch the launch
DSCOVR will orbit at the “L1” Lagrange point – a neutral gravity region of space that will keep the spacecraft positioned perfectly between the earth and sun. DSCOVR will orbit at the same rate around the sun as the Earth and will always see the side of the earth facing the sun.
While most of DSCOVR contains modern instruments, the spacecraft itself was refurbished from a mothballed 90’s era satellite. That mission, Triana, was championed by former Vice President Al Gore as a means to provide continuous ‘blue marble’ imagery back to Earth. While most of DSCOVR’s instruments will be pointed at the sun, NASA will have a camera on DSCOVR pointing back at the Earth that will transmit images similar to how the Triana mission would have. Gore was present for the launch and hosted an impromptu press conference to laud the long delayed mission.
Learn more about the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket:
SpaceX was hoping the mission would also give them an opportunity to land the first stage of the rocket on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean. A previous attempt failed in January after the rocket ran out of hydraulic fluid for its control system. This time the seas were too rough to attempt the barge landing, although the rocket was ditched in the ocean under control. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said it was a successful controled descent in a tweet:
Rocket soft landed in the ocean within 10m of target & nicely vertical! High probability of good droneship landing in non-stormy weather.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 11, 2015
This was the 15th successful flight of the Falcon 9 rocket. The next SpaceX launch from Cape Canaveral is slated to take place February 27th where the company will launch a pair of communication satellites for the Asia Broadcast Satellite corporation.