NASA To Revive DSCOVR Mission with Funding from Congress

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WASHINGTON — Eight years after NASA gave up on launching a $100 million Earth monitoring satellite, Congress has approved $9 million to begin the task of recertifying the spacecraft for flight.

Congressional approval of money for the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), with specific direction to spend it on the Earth monitoring instruments, came as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were considering reviving the long-dormant mission and equipping the satellite to serve as a space-weather sentinel.

At NOAA’s request, NASA completed three months of tests on DSCOVR in February to see how the satellite would perform after sitting idle for eight years at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. NASA issued a report to NOAA about the test results, but no decisions have been made about the satellite’s future, said NASA spokesman Steve Cole.

“The spacecraft hardware was found to be in very good shape after years of storage at Goddard,” Cole said. “No mission plans have been created nor interagency agreements signed to pursue such a space-weather mission with DSCOVR. NOAA is merely exploring the possibility at this point.”

DSCOVR, called Triana when then-Vice President Al Gore proposed the mission in 1998, was built to be the first Earth observing satellite to operate at a gravitationally stable location 1.5 million kilometers from Earth known as Lagrange Point 1. The area offers a continuous view of the sunlit side of Earth, allowing the satellite’s two Earth monitoring instruments and one space-weather instrument to take measurements over longer periods of time than provided by satellites in low Earth orbit.

Francisco Valero, chief scientist for DSCOVR and professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, said DSCOVR’s unique orbit would provide such broad coverage that it would help scientists synchronize the calibrations of all Earth monitoring satellites and improve global databases.

“We are intent on trying to integrate all Earth observation,” Valero said. “It would ensure that the observations have some meaning because you can cross-check things.”

The next step toward the launch pad is to use the $9 million Congress approved for DSCOVR as part of NASA’s 2009 budget to refurbish the satellite’s two Earth science instruments – the Scripps-Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera and the Scripps-National Institute of Standards and Technology Advanced Radiometer. The satellite’s third instrument, for space-weather monitoring, is the Plasma-Magnetometer Solar Weather Package, or Plasma-Mag, built at Goddard.

With a budget for the first time in eight years, Valero said he can now pay science team members that continued to work on the mission on a voluntary basis after funding dried up. The reconstituted team will review the mission’s scientific priorities, develop computer models, and update algorithms and theories in light of new technologies available.

Valero believes DSCOVR could be ready for launch within a year, provided NASA has the money in its budget. The space agency estimated in a 2007 study that the cost of refurbishing DSCOVR, launching the spacecraft on a Delta 2 rocket and operating it would be about $205 million, Cole said. Valero said DSCOVR could also launch atop a Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 9 rocket.

While U.S. President Barack Obama has consistently stressed the importance of climate monitoring, listing it first as a priority in his 2010 budget outline for NASA, specifics on his budget plan will not be publicly released until April. Obama has proposed boosting NASA’s budget from $17.8 billion in 2009 to $18.7 billion in 2010.

Valero said he is eager to get started so DSCOVR can work in tandem with NASA’s five so-called A-Train satellites already monitoring Earth from a low orbit in close proximity to one another that allows them to combine observations of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, and measurements of the ozone layer, aerosols and cloud cover. NASA launched the first A-Train satellite, Aqua, in 2002; that was followed by Aura, Cloudsat, Calipso and France’s Parasol. A sixth satellite planned to complete the set, called the Ocean Carbon Observatory, was destroyed in a Feb. 24 launch failure.

Valero wants DSCOVR to have enough time to work with the aging A-Train satellites.

“We’d like to have as much overlap as possible with the existing satellites,” Valero said. “I would like to start on this tomorrow.”