Falcon 9 Launches DSCOVR on Third Attempt


Updated 6:45 a.m. EST Feb. 12.

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched a space and Earth sciences satellite Feb. 11 after two previous attempts were scrubbed by weather and technical problems, but high seas prevented SpaceX from attempting to land the rocket’s first stage on a ship.

The Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 6:03 p.m. EST carrying the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft. The rocket’s upper stage released the spacecraft about 35 minutes after launch, after placing it on a trajectory to the Earth-sun Lagrange point 1 about 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth in the direction of the sun.

The launch took place after problems scrubbed two previous attempts. Controllers postponed a Feb. 8 launch attempt because of a problem with a U.S. Air Force tracking radar. A second attempt two days later was scrubbed because of strong upper level winds.

Earlier in the day, SpaceX called off plans to attempt to land the Falcon 9 first stage on an “autonomous spaceport drone ship” located about 600 kilometers downrange from the launch site as part of the company’s efforts to develop a reusable version of the Falcon 9. The company said heavy seas at the ship’s location, along with a problem with one of the ship’s four engines, led them to cancel a landing attempt.

“The drone ship was designed to operate in all but the most extreme weather,” SpaceX said in a statement. “We are experiencing just such weather in the Atlantic with waves reaching up to three stories in height crashing over the decks.”

The company said it would instead attempt a “landing” of the stage on the ocean surface. It warned, though, that “survival [of the stage] is highly unlikely.” SpaceX made similar ocean landing attempts during launches in April and July of 2014, and in neither case was able to recover the stage.

In a statement issued after the launch, SpaceX said the stage landed within 10 meters of the targeted spot in the ocean. “The vehicle was nicely vertical and the data captured during this test suggests a high probability of being able to land the stage on the drone ship in better weather,” the company said in its statement.

DSCOVR, a joint project of NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Air Force, will operate from the Earth-sun Lagrange point 1. It will provide early warnings of solar storms, a mission similar to NASA’s existing Advanced Composition Explorer spacecraft there.

The mission dates back to 1998, when then-Vice President Al Gore announced plans for a spacecraft called Triana that would provide constant imagery of the full disk of the Earth for scientific and educational purposes. Those original plans called for NASA to build and launch the spacecraft by the year 2000.

Triana ran into opposition from some members of Congress, however, who criticized the mission’s usefulness as well as its White House origins. The administration of President George W. Bush elected not to continue Triana, and placed the completed spacecraft in storage in November 2001. NASA, in cooperation with NOAA and the U.S. Air Force, resurrected the spacecraft as DSCOVR in 2009 with a new focus on solar observations.

DSCOVR will provide imagery of the Earth, but as a secondary mission to its primary space weather role. Steven Clarke, director of NASA’s Joint Agency Satellite Division, said at a pre-launch briefing Feb. 7 that unlike Triana’s original plans to provide realtime images of the Earth, DSCOVR will take four to six such images a day, transmitted back to Earth with a one-day delay.

The overall cost of DSCOVR, including the spacecraft hardware built for Triana, is about $340 million, said Stephen Volz, assistant administrator of the NOAA Satellite and Information Service, with “a close split” among NASA, NOAA, and the Air Force. A NOAA fact sheet states that the agency anticipates spending $104.8 million on the mission over its life. The Air Force is providing the launch under a $97 million contract it awarded to SpaceX in 2012.

Gore was present for the Feb. 11 launch and the two previous scrubbed attempts. “It was inspiring to witness the launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory,” he said in a statement issued after the launch. “DSCOVR will also give us a wonderful opportunity to see the beauty and fragility of our planet and, in doing so, remind us of the duty to protect our only home.”