Al Gore’s Satellite

It’s almost ready for launch—even if no one wants to take credit for its resurrection.

Politics delayed the mission, but the spacecraft, with a new focus and the new name DSCOVR, will launch in 2015. (Courtesy the Climate Reality Project)
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The National Research Council’s verdict bought Triana enough capital to finish construction and get it scheduled on a space shuttle launch. The spacecraft was completed by late 2000—just as Gore was packing his bags to leave Washington—at a cost of around $150 million. It was three times the budget Gore initially envisioned, but just one-tenth the cost of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory—SOHO—launched five years earlier. “NASA was not used to doing things either quickly or cheaply in those days,” Asrar says. “This program was a breakthrough.”

But the effort was in vain. When George W. Bush’s administration arrived in January 2001, it quickly moved to terminate Gore’s pet project. By the spring, NASA had removed Triana from the manifest (it had been scheduled for launch in February 2003 from the shuttle Columbia, which would break apart on reentry during that flight). The agency, then headed by Bush nominee Sean O’Keefe, explained the decision by prioritizing construction payloads to the International Space Station, microgravity experiments, and a reboost for the Hubble Space Telescope, on a shuttle manifest that held a mere six flights per year. The Triana team looked for alternate launch opportunities, says Asrar, but a ride on a rocket would double the budget.

Still, Triana did not quite die. The team decided to store it, hoping that an opportunity to get it into space would eventually arise. NASA technicians wrapped the spacecraft in plastic and subjected it to a nitrogen purge that kept any water vapor from forming, then stuffed it in a container under a balcony at Goddard. In 2003, optimistic NASA officials traded the baggage-laden name Triana for Deep Space Climate Observatory, shortened to DSCOVR. Like a prince in exile, the satellite awaited the next shift of power so it could return home.

After President Obama’s administration arrived in January 2009, it started searching for a way to resurrect DSCOVR before the year was out, says NOAA’s Kicza. When the White House circulated an interagency memo looking for a means to revive the satellite, NOAA saw an opportunity to replace the aging ACE mission, and managed to add $2 million into its 2011 budget for DSCOVR refurbishment—a largely symbolic gesture ($2 million doesn’t go very far in the space industry) to kickstart the satellite’s revival. The next year, that figure rose to $29.8 million, and Gore’s satellite was alive once more.

The instruments aimed at the sun are now classified as the spacecraft’s primary mission, while those that will make measurements relevant to climate change have been relegated to afterthought status. The EPIC and NISTAR instruments will still make climate observations, but at a slower rate, giving precedence to the space weather observations. “NASA doesn’t want to see this characterized as an Earth science mission,” says Steve Cole, an agency press officer. Yet even launching more than a decade late and under altered pretenses, DSCOVR has a chance to produce breakthrough science, its long-suffering backers say.

Furthermore, L1, in addition to serving as a potentially ideal vantage point for watching Earth from afar, offers a nice, close spot for observing the sun. The spacecraft’s Plasma-Mag instruments, which measure solar wind and magnetic field strength, will be well-situated to increase knowledge of the workings of the sun, especially since it has just reached solar maximum, a period of increased plasma eruptions and magnetic distortions. Solar storms extreme enough to have consequences on Earth occur on average a few times during each 11-year solar cycle, explains Doug Biesecker, NOAA’s program scientist for DSCOVR, who works from the agency’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. The last Category Five event, the so-called Halloween Storm of 2003, caused a blackout in Sweden, power disruptions in South Africa, and loopy GPS readings around the world.

Back in the 1990s, NASA equipped the sun-facing side of the satellite with a Faraday Cup, a device that measures electron flows in a vacuum. The updated version can keep tabs on solar activity and send an alert 15 to 60 minutes before a surge is heading our way, which could give utility companies time to shift loads down, warn aircraft to stay on the ground until the heavy weather passes, and give ships the chance to prepare for their navigation going off-line—all far less controversial objectives than measuring global warming.

The one thing DSCOVR won’t do is the only thing it was created for in the first place: deliver the inspirational 24-hour live stream of Earth that Gore envisioned. Szabo says the spacecraft will take high-resolution, color images of the planet about every two hours and store them on board, downloading them once a day when the satellite is in view of the NOAA ground station at Wallops Island, Virginia. Within a day, the pictures will appear on the NASA Langley Atmospheric Science Data Center’s website, which already publishes data and images from about 50 other Earth science projects. In 2014, we’ve come far from the world Gore was living in when he dreamt up his “blue marble” reboot: The International Space Station now live-streams 16 sunsets a day, and the majority of Americans believe climate change is happening. Gore’s goals have been largely satisfied, even if it wasn’t through Triana.

With the space shuttle no longer an option, mission management agreed to launch DSCOVR on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. And the U.S. Air Force secured $134.5 million in 2012 to run next year’s launch operation. Both NASA and NOAA say that everything is on schedule for liftoff in January 2015.

The approaching launch is bittersweet for Triana’s creators, who mourn the years of lost science, and fear that, despite agency assurances to the contrary, the long period in deep freeze will have taken its toll. “NASA engineers are very clever, but the components were still aging while the whole system sat in storage for 10 years,” Ghassem Asrar laments.

Francisco Valero’s team from the Scripps Institution was not asked to play a role in the revived DSCOVR mission, and he warns that without an academic partner, the program will not be as fruitful. “The preparations should be made with the input of [an academic] science team,” he says. Instead, NOAA scientists will work with the space weather data, while NASA will handle the Earth data that trickles in.

Yet between the frustration of the veterans and the subterfuge of agency management, a bit of triumph seeps in as DSCOVR prepares for outer space at last. “If we even get a full year of science data from this satellite from the L1 vantage point, it will be a major breakthrough for Earth science,” says Asrar.

Just don’t call it Goresat.

About Craig Mellow

Craig Mellow, a freelance journalist who lives in Savannah, Georgia, has written for Air & Space from Russia, Western Europe, and the United States.

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