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NOAA taps DSCOVR satellite for space weather mission

Posted: February 21, 2011

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The White House is requesting $47 million in fiscal year 2012 to convert a climate satellite grounded by politics into an observatory to monitor space weather and warn of solar storms.

File photo of the DSCOVR spacecraft undergoing testing in February 2009 at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now
The Obama administration's budget proposal released last Monday would start the development of a new mission for the Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR. The satellite was originally built for climate observations from the L1 libration point, a stable gravity-neutral point a million miles away from Earth.

From that location, Earth science sensors on DSCOVR would have a constant view of the day side of the planet.

But the L1 point is more commonly used by solar science missions, and it's an ideal location for a spacecraft to sniff out geomagnetic storms before they reach Earth.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would manage the DSCOVR mission as an operational sentinel to give notice of approaching solar storms with potentially calamitous consequences for terrestrial electrical grids, communications, GPS navigation, air travel, satellite operations and human spaceflight.

"The FY2012 funds would support the refurbishment of an existing NASA satellite, DSCOVR," said Jane Lubchenco, NOAA's administrator. "This acquisition will allow NOAA to continue to receive vital data to help anticipate and mitigate space weather damage, which could potentially result in costs to the United States of $1 to $2 trillion."

NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer, launched in 1997, is the only spacecraft currently providing short-term warnings of geomagnetic storms. ACE is also stationed at the L1 point, giving forecasters about a 40-minute warning of approaching solar events that could disrupt life and economic activity on Earth.

ACE is operating 12 years beyond its design life and could fail at any time.

The $47.3 million budgeted for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, would support the refurbishment of the DSCOVR spacecraft, which was put in storage at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center when the agency suspended work on the project in 2001.

The DSCOVR mission was conceived by former Vice President Al Gore in the late 1990s. Gore envisioned the satellite would beam back live pictures of the Earth 24 hours a day, boosting interest in environmental concerns. Scientists developed observation cameras to collect data on the planet's radiation budget.

But Congress and the George W. Bush administration balked at the mission. NASA formally terminated the project in 2005 after spending $97 million.

The funding would also permit the Naval Research Laboratory to continue development and construction of a coronal mass ejection imager to fly on the new DSCOVR mission, according to NOAA.

After it set mostly untouched for seven years, NASA pulled the refrigerator-sized satellite out of storage in late 2008 for health checks of the spacecraft bus and its science instruments, a ten-channel imager and a radiation-measuring radiometer for Earth observations and a plasma sensor suite to monitor space weather.

Artist's concept of the DSCOVR satellite in space. Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography
NASA was also directed to refurbish the Earth science instruments, and that work is complete or nearing completion, according to Steve Cole, an agency spokesperson.

The recent work on the DSCOVR spacecraft was ordered as NOAA considered several replacement options for the aging ACE satellite. Other options included starting from scratch on an entirely new spacecraft and developing a sensor to fly on a commercial satellite.

The space agency would ready the DSCOVR spacecraft for flight and the U.S. Air Force would select a launch vehicle. DSCOVR would be ready for launch by late 2013 if NOAA gets full funding this year.

NOAA wants to launch the satellite by the time the sun reaches solar maximum, the peak of activity in its up-and-down cycle. Forecasters predict the next solar maximum in 2013.

The White House budget request also calls for more than $1 billion to continue development of the Joint Polar Satellite System, NOAA's next-generation low-altitude weather satellites. The NOAA-led JPSS program was started last year to replace the troubled NPOESS program, which combined U.S. civil and military weather satellites.

The federal government is running on a continuing resolution, a stopgap budget that freezes spending at last year's levels. NASA officials say the frozen budget is delaying critical work to start development of a spacecraft and observation sensors.

NOAA is facing a potential gap in crucial weather observations from polar orbit, and $1 billion would jumpstart the JPSS program, according to Lubchenco. The budget request represents a $687 million increase over the current year.

The NOAA budget proposal also includes funds for the Jason 3 sea surface altimetry mission, a joint project with Europe. The Obama administration is also requesting money to start work on 12 new small COSMIC satellites with Taiwan to obtain global temperature and moisture profile measurements.