At Goddard, I met with Joe Burt, the lean and ebullient project leader for DSCOVR. Burt told me that in late 2009, a team of 15 technicians and engineers uncrated DSCOVR and found it in “outstanding” condition. “The propulsion tank hasn’t lost a fraction of pressure after being put away for years,” he says. “Everything mechanical on the satellite is working well. It’s ready to go.” He added that the two earth-science instruments built for DSCOVR—EPIC and NISTAR—have recently undergone a $2-million refurbishment. “They’re in fine shape,” he says. “They’re changing a couple of wavelengths on the filter. With different filters, you can see different things—different aerosols, different clouds. But it’s not a big deal. Changing the filters is kind of like putting on a different pair of sunglasses.” Burt says now that NASA has done the refurbishing, it could fly the satellite to L1, as soon as 2014—if NOAA and the Air Force, which is interested in the effects of solar weather on its technology, provide the approximately $125 million to pay for the launch.
This all seemed like promising news until I visited NOAA, where I realized that interagency dysfunction still threatens DSCOVR’s fate. At NOAA’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, an assistant administrator named Mary Kicza told me that the climate instruments, EPIC and NISTAR, would be aboard the satellite when and if it launches. Then, speaking slowly, she said: “but earth science is not NOAA’s purpose for the mission.”
Instead, NOAA, like the Air Force, is interested in how the sun damages electronic equipment on Earth. It wants to equip DSCOVR with a coronagraph, an instrument that would monitor the plasma, particles and magnetic fields that stream out of the sun. Surges of plasma and magnetism can disrupt power supplies, short-circuit satellite electronics, and scuttle aircraft-navigation systems. “The goal,” Kicza said, “is to send warnings back to Earth.”
What about EPIC and NISTAR? I asked. “Those instruments are part of NASA’s program,” Kicza said, “and you don’t just flick them on. You need a ground system in place. You need algorithms developed.” Are the algorithms developed? “For that,” she said, “you’d really need to talk to NASA.”
Sitting there, I feared that simple bureaucracy might yield a weird paradox—a Deep Space Climate Observatory mission that would do no climate observing.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.