Satellite Set To Stream Daily Images Of Earth From Space

Feb 6, 2015
Originally published on February 7, 2015 2:24 pm

There's something majestic, even awe-inspiring about the sight of planet Earth as a blue disc, hanging in the vastness of space.

The three astronauts aboard Apollo 8 were the first to get that view; if all goes well, later this year everyone will be able to get it on a daily basis over the Internet.

The images will come courtesy of a spacecraft called Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). It's a mission with an unusual history.

Al Gore first proposed the idea for DSCOVR back in 1998, when he was vice president. Gore was so smitten with the view of Earth from space that he put an enormous print of a picture taken by Apollo 17 on the wall of his West Wing office. "Wouldn't it be nice," Gore asked in 1998, "to have that image continuous, live, 24 hours a day?"

So he proposed sending a probe to a spot a million miles from Earth — a place known as the L1 Lagrange point, where the gravity of the Earth and the sun cancel each other out. The space probe, originally dubbed Triana, would point a telescope with a color camera back at our planet from L1, and send images down to Earth.

NASA was game to build and launch Triana, but Roger Launius says the space agency officials weren't crazy about the idea of a satellite that only had one instrument on board. Launius, now associate director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, was NASA's chief historian when Gore proposed Triana. "They certainly wanted to make it a more scientifically viable project than, maybe, was envisioned initially by Mr. Gore," Launius says.

So NASA added instruments to measure the solar wind and radiant energy coming from Earth.

But then Gore lost an election to George W. Bush. The new Republican president and the Republicans in Congress weren't interested in Democrat Gore's pet project. They mockingly called it "GoreSat."

Launius says NASA wasn't about to expend any political capital trying to keep Triana alive. "Most of the time, you're not going to go to the wall on any one project, especially if it's a relatively small project that is not your first priority to start with," he says.

So, even though Triana was built and almost ready for launch, NASA shipped it to Building 29 at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and put it in storage.

Then, in 2009, something happened.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration decided it needed a new space weather satellite.

Every so often the sun burps out a cloud of charged particles that hurtle through space toward Earth. These storms can cause havoc on the electric power grid. With sufficient warning, utilities can make adjustments to protect the grid, and it's NOAA's job to provide early warning for these storms.

The agency was relying on a NASA satellite that was way past its prime. It needed a replacement, and scientific instruments NASA added to Triana made it just the thing NOAA was looking for.

So Triana was rechristened DSCOVR. Its instruments got a tuneup, and the spacecraft was made ready for launch.

Thomas Berger, head of NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, calls DSCOVR "our buoy in space, if you will, that warns us of that solar tsunami coming toward the Earth. And we can get about an hour's warning (at best) to prepare for the impact."

The military is also interested in early warning — so interested that the Air Force is actually paying to launch DSCOVR.

"There are things we can do to put our spacecraft or other systems in safe states — to minimize the damage that could be caused by any form of space weather," says Col. D. Jason Cothern, chief of the Air Force's Space Demonstrations division. "Having that 'heads up' would be very helpful."

So the revival of Triana is making the Air Force happy; it's making NOAA happy; it's making NASA happy. And it's making one other person happy.

"I'm extremely happy about it, as you might imagine," says Al Gore. "In fact, I'm going to be at Cape Canaveral for the launch."

GoreSat may have been the butt of some jokes, but it looks like the former vice president will get the last laugh. And, despite the new name and mission, DSCOVR will still provide that picture of Earth that Gore first had in mind.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There are only 27 people who have blasted off from the Earth, looked back and seen our planet as a blue sphere hanging in the vastness of space.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We see the Earth now almost as a disc.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Roger.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have a beautiful view of Florida now, and at the same time we can see Africa.

SIEGEL: The three astronauts aboard Apollo 8 were the first to see earth that way. But if all goes well later this year, everyone will have access to that view. The image will come from a spacecraft called DSCOVR, and we'll hear more about that spacecraft now from NPR's Joe Palca. He's been working on a series of stories about science and invention called Joe's Big Idea, and today it's the curious history of DSCOVR. As Joe tells us, the mission scheduled for launch this Sunday was first proposed by Vice President Al Gore way back in 1998.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Al Gore was pretty smitten with the view of earth you can only get from space. There was a giant photograph of the Earth taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts in his West Wing office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL GORE: Wouldn't it be nice to have that image continuous, live, 24 hours a day?

PALCA: That's Gore speaking in 1998. He had the idea that it would be nice for everyone to get that view, a way to inspire and humble us, a kind of reminder that we earthlings are all in this together. So he proposed sending a probe to a spot a million miles from Earth, a probe named Triana, that would point a telescope with a color camera back at our planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GORE: And send images down to students by way of the Internet.

PALCA: NASA was game to build and launch Triana, but Roger Launius says the space agency officials weren't crazy about the idea of a satellite that had only one instrument on board. Launius was NASA's chief historian when Gore proposed Triana.

ROGER LAUNIUS: They certainly wanted to make it a more scientifically viable project than maybe was envisioned initially by Mr. Gore.

PALCA: So NASA added instruments to measure the solar wind and radiant energy coming from the Earth. But then Al Gore lost an election to George W. Bush. The new president and the Republicans in Congress weren't interested in Democrat Gore's pet project. They mockingly called it GoreSat. Launius says NASA wasn't about to expend any political capital trying to keep Triana live.

LAUNIUS: Most of the time, you're not going to the wall on any one project, especially if it's a relatively small project that is not your first priority to start with.

PALCA: So even though it was built and almost ready for launch, NASA shipped Triana to building 29 at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, where it just sat. Then something happened. In 2009, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also known as NOAA, decided it needed a new space weather satellite. The agency was relying on a NASA satellite way past its prime for the data needed for space weather forecasts. NOAA wanted a replacement, and the scientific instruments NASA added to Triana made it just the thing NOAA was looking for.

So Triana was rechristened DSCOVR. Its instruments got a tune-up, and the spacecraft was made ready for launch. Now, you may be thinking, space weather forecasts? What - the crew of the space station is worried about rain and snow? No, it's not that. Tom Berger is head of NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center.

TOM BERGER: A weather satellite in deep space is going to give us advance notice of storms coming from the sun that impact the earth and the earth's magnetosphere.

PALCA: Every so often, the sun burps out a cloud of charged particles that hurdle through space at a million miles an hour or faster. Berger says since DSCOVR will orbit at a point a million miles from Earth...

BERGER: It's our buoy in space, if you will, that warns us of that solar tsunami coming towards the earth. And we can get about an hour's warning, at best, to prepare for the impact.

PALCA: These storms can cause havoc on the electric power grid. But with warning, utilities can make adjustments. The military is also interested in early warning, so interested that the Air Force is actually paying to launch DSCOVR. Col. Jason Cothern is in charge of the Air Force aspects of the DSCOVR mission.

JASON COTHERN: There are things that we can do to put our spacecraft or other systems in safe states to minimize the damage that could be caused by any form of space weather. So having that heads-up would be very helpful.

PALCA: So the revival of Triana is making the Air Force happy. It's making NOAA happy. It's making NASA happy. I was wondering how one other person was feeling about the mission. I reached him by home phone in his Nashville office.

And how do you feel now, 17 years after you first talked about it, that this spacecraft is actually going to go into space?

GORE: (Laughter) I'm extremely happy, as you might imagine. In fact, I'm going to be at Cape Canaveral for the launch.

PALCA: So even though GoreSat may have been the butt of some jokes, it looks like Mr. Gore will get the last laugh. And, oh, by the way, DSCOVR will still provide that picture of Earth Gore first had in mind, a picture that will be available to students and anyone else by way of the Internet. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.