Falcon 9 Ready for DSCOVR Launch, Landing Attempt

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WASHINGTON — SpaceX and a trio of government agencies said Feb. 7 they are ready for the launch of a space weather and Earth observation spacecraft, a flight that will also serve as another test of SpaceX’s efforts to develop a reusable launch vehicle.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to lift off Feb. 8 at 6:10 p.m. EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, carrying the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft. At a pre-launch press conference Feb. 7 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, officials reported no issues with either the spacecraft or launch vehicle, with the chance of favorable weather at launch time of more than 90 percent.

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, about 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth in the direction of the sun. It will provide early warnings of solar storms, a mission similar to NASA’s existing Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft there.

Workers conduct a light test on the solar arrays on NOAA's Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft, in the Building 1 high bay at the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, Florida. Credit: NESDIS
Workers conduct a light test on the solar arrays on NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft, in the Building 1 high bay at the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, Florida. Credit: NESDIS

“The importance of space weather measurements and observations are so critical that it’s essential we get DSCOVR our there to carry on the ACE measurements,” said Stephen Volz, assistant administrator of the NOAA Satellite and Information Service. ACE, launched in 1997, is well past its planned lifetime.

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. A 1999 report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General concluded that while Triana’s science was peer reviewed, NASA had not subjected the overall mission to the usual level of scrutiny.

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 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 the DSCOVR mission, including the spacecraft hardware built for Triana, is about $340 million, Vogt said, 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.

Falcon 9 landing exposion
A Falcon 9 first stage explodes on the deck of SpaceX’s landing ship during an attempted landing Jan. 10. The image was one of several posted on Twitter by company CEO Elon Musk early Jan. 16. Credit: Elon Musk/Twitter

Much of the public interest in the launch has less to do with DSCOVR than what SpaceX plans to do with the first stage. As with the previous Falcon 9 launch on Jan. 10, SpaceX will attempt to land the stage on an “autonomous spaceport drone ship” located about 600 kilometers downrange from the launch site, part of the company’s efforts to develop a reusable version of the launch vehicle.

That prior attempt failed when the first stage ran out of hydraulic fluid used by four “X-wing” fins that steer the stage. Video released by SpaceX on Jan. 16 showed the stage landing on the ship at a 45-degree angle and exploding. This Falcon 9 has an additional reservoir of hydraulic fluid to avoid that problem, SpaceX vice president of mission assurance Hans Koenigsmann said at the briefing.

He cautioned, though, that the trajectory for this mission is different than the previous launch, causing the stage to reenter at a higher velocity and with twice the dynamic pressure of the January launch. “That makes it a little less likely to succeed,” he said.

Asked for the odds of success for this landing attempt, Koenigsmann gave the same odds as the company did prior to the January attempt: 50 percent. SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk later admitted that 50-percent estimate was a guess. “I have no idea,” he said in a Jan. 5 question-and-answer session on Reddit.com.

Should the Falcon 9 lift off successfully on schedule, Koenigsmann said SpaceX will turn the pad around quickly for the next launch, of the Boeing-built ABS-3A and Eutelsat 115 West B satellites, is scheduled for Feb. 27. Koenigsmann said SpaceX doesn’t plan an attempt to land the first stage on that mission.