SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts-off on February 11 from Cape Canaveral. (SpaceX)
The $340 million Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR, is the first deep space weather mission operated by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and is in partnership with NASA and the Air Force. The 1,250-pound satellite carries five science instruments designed to record the output of solar radiation from the Sun and its effect on Earth.
"DSCOVR will serve as our tsunami buoy in space giving forecasters up to an hour warning on the arrival of the huge magnetic eruptions from the Sun that occasionally occur called coronal mass ejections," said Dr. Tom Berger, NOAA space weather prediction center director said on Saturday. "CME's are the cause of the largest geomagnetic storms on Earth some of which can severely disrupt our technological society causing loss of communications with aircraft, damage to satellites on orbit and power grid equipment on the ground.
DSCOVR was grounded during two previous launch attempts on February 8 and 10 by a faulty tracking radar and then upper level winds. As the countdown neared zero, controllers were green with no weather or ground issues in the way.
The Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) Falcon's nine rocket engines ignited on time at 6:03:32 p.m. EST, and lifted off into a twilight sky over Cape Canaveral. A 300-foot golden flame pushed the white rocket higher and faster as Falcon soared out over the Atlantic waters beginning SpaceX first deep space launch. Wednesday's launch also marked the tenth flight of a Falcon.
“It was inspiring to witness the launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory," former Vice President Albert Gore said from near the launch site. "DSCOVR has embarked on its mission to further our understanding of Earth and enable citizens and scientists alike to better understand the reality of the climate crisis and envision its solutions. 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.”
As the Falcon 9 first stage gulped it's fuel, engineers at SpaceX prepared for the flight's first stage separation. Controllers were originally scheduled to safely land the spent stage for reuse on a future flight as the booster was flipped around 180-degrees and later guided down by two burns towards a safe landing a top a free floating barge located about 370 miles down range from Cape Canaveral.
However, nearly thirty-foot waves at the swaying barge forced SpaceX to abandon plans and instead force it into a devastating water impact away from the platform. "Rocket soft landed in the ocean within 10 meters of target and nicely vertical," SpaceX founder Elon Musk wrote on Twitter 40 minutes following splashdown. "High probability of good droneship landing in non-stormy weather."
SpaceX officials point to this type of recovery and reuse of its rockets as a step toward reducing future launch costs. The company now charges $61.2 million for a 2016 payload to be launched a top its standard Falcon 9. The massive Falcon 9 Heavy fetches $85 million per launch.
On board camera views mounted on the rocket captured unique views of the flight including engine cut-off and stage separation. Thirty-six minutes into the flight, DSCOVR separated from the Falcon's upper stage and immediately deployed its twin solar arrays. NOAA expects the spacecraft will operate for up to five years, and could continue for a decade or more based on its thruster fuel consumption.
DSCOVR will operate from a position known as the Lagrange 1 orbit -- a position located 930,000 miles from Earth in an orbit around the Sun. NOAA expects it will take 110 days for DSCOVR to reach its L1 orbit for operations.
"From (this) position it's staring at the Sun and taking data measurements of the solar wind coming from the Sun in real time and transmitting that data directly to the Earth," Dr. Stephen Voltz, a NOAA assistant administrator for satellite and information services, explained on Saturday. "Looking backwards, it's also observing the Earth with a secondary payload."
The observatory will also photograph the brightly light disk of our planet a few times each day. The photographs will be published on NASA.gov the following day.