Monster Machines: This ‘GoreSat’ Weather Satellite Will Keep An Eye On Solar Winds

When the solar winds blow strong, it plays havoc with electronics here on Earth. We can protect our sensitive electronic infrastructure — power grids, navigation and communication satellites, and such — but only with sufficient warning. And that’s where the new DSCOVR satellite comes in.

When the sun ejects a solar flare into space, the high energy particles that constitute solar wind can cause Earth’s atmosphere to erupt in a geomagnetic storm thereby damaging, or at least temporarily disrupting, the terrestrial electronics. The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR, not DSCO for some reason) represents the latest generation of solar wind early warning system, providing researchers and utilities valuable minutes to harden sensitive systems against the electromagnetic onslaught.

The DSCOVR will launch early next month from Cape Canaveral aboard an Falcon 9 rocket and travel nearly a million miles to Lagrange 1, the gravity-neutral midway point between the Earth and the Sun. From this position, it will have an uninterrupted view of the the Earth’s sunlit half, providing between 15 minutes and an hour or lead time ahead of a disruptive solar storm’s arrival.

“A CME [coronal mass ejection] is many times larger than Earth, and will pass over the satellite, allowing scientists to determine the magnetic field and the strength of the resulting geomagnetic storm that will ensue,” Douglas Biesecker, a DSCOVR program scientist, said in a press statement.

What’s more, the satellite’s unique orbit means that “we will be able to see the whole sunlit disc of Earth all the time,” said Adam Szabo, NASA’s DSCOVR project scientist, in a press statement. It will do so by utilising the NASA Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) and this could prove a boon for the Earth observation sciences:

EPIC’s observations will provide a unique angular perspective, and will be used in science applications to measure ozone and aerosol amounts, cloud height, vegetation properties and ultraviolet reflectivity of Earth. The data from EPIC will be used by NASA for a number of Earth science developments including dust and volcanic ash maps of the entire Earth.

EPIC makes images of the sunlit face of the Earth in 10 narrowband spectral channels. As part of EPIC data processing, a full disk true colour Earth image will be produced about every two hours.

The DSCOVR is actually almost 20 years old. It was first proposed way back in 1998 by vice-president/Internet inventor Al Gore (hence “GoreSat”) as an Earth observation satellite/publicity stunt. According to a report by the New York Times, Gore had hoped to raise climate change awareness by updating the historic “Blue Marble” image captured by Apollo 17.

Unfortunately for Gore, NASA wasn’t biting. NASA’s Inspector General at the time shot down the proposal stating that “Triana’s [DSCOVR’s original name] added science may not represent the best expenditure of NASA’s limited science funding.” This rebuke was reason enough for the newly-elected Dubya Bush administration to mothball the project indefinitely.

The $US100 million satellite stayed in storage for the entirety of Bush’s term but the approaching end of ACE’s operational life, as well as a sterling recommendation of DSCOVR’s usefulness from the NSF, instigated the Obama administration to pull it out in 2008 and re-certify it for launch. [NOAAWikiNASA]