Today, NASA officials aren’t eager to talk about it. When I first wrote to the agency last summer, I received a reply that made me feel like I’d asked about an unwanted pregnancy. “Currently DSCOVR is a mission without an agency,” NASA publicist Sarah DeWitt wrote. “NASA still has no direction from anyone to fly the mission, so we don’t really have anything definitive to say about its future as of right now.” She suggested I contact NOAA, the other agency with a hand in the mission. When I did, the publicist there advised me write to NASA.
So began my campaign. For the next eight weeks I would call, e-mail, and generally hassle various contacts at multiple agencies in a seemingly vain effort to see, with my own eyes, the only satellite that NASA has built but never launched.
Since 1999, NASA and NOAA have been calling for an integrated Earth-observing system—a network of satellites that, among other things, would consistently measure changes in the Earth’s climate. But that campaign is “languishing,” said a 2010 Government Accountability Office report, and there are “significant gaps in future satellite coverage.”
Meanwhile, Earth-observing satellites are subject to constant abuse. Cosmic rays grind on the delicate spectrometers that measure the planet’s radiation. Over time, the satellites stray from their orbit and sink nearer to Earth. The data they collect becomes inconsistent. In short, they have limited life expectancies, and some of NASA’s 14 Earth-observing satellites have already outlived theirs.
All of which makes DSCOVR’s decade of dormancy more puzzling. In addition to the continuous macrolevel monitoring of the Earth’s albedo that the satellite would perform, it could also be a crucial component of a larger satellite array. Because DSCOVR would be farther away from Earth than any other satellite, it would be able to see every other satellite in the sky. As a result, other satellites would be able to calibrate their location and sensors against DSCOVR. Moreover, because it would constantly face the moon, which has no atmosphere and thus a constant albedo, it would have a uniquely consistent baseline from which it could calibrate its instruments—and from which other satellites could calibrate as well. In this way, DSCOVR could be the keystone on which present and future space-based Earth-monitoring systems could depend.
Such a network would fulfill the primary missions of both agencies. NOAA’s mission is first and foremost to “understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment.” The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, meanwhile, established NASA’s first objective as the “expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.” Yet for nearly a decade now, space exploration has been a higher priority for NASA than monitoring our own planet. Just this spring, it succeeded in pulling off a familiar-sounding mission: STEREO, in which a pair of satellites orbit the sun and beam back continuous footage of our resident star. But DSCOVR remained in storage.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.