Artist's concept of the DSCOVR satellite in orbit. Credit: NOAA

New Mission: DSCOVR Satellite will Monitor the Solar Wind

Article Updated: 23 Dec , 2015

Solar wind – that is, the stream of charged electrons and protons that are released from the upper atmosphere of the Sun – is a constant in our Solar System and generally not a concern for us Earthlings. However, on occasion a solar wind shock wave or Coronal Mass Ejection can occur, disrupting satellites, electronics systems, and even sending harmful radiation to the surface.

Little wonder then why NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have made a point of keeping satellites in orbit that can maintain real-time monitoring capabilities. The newest mission, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is expected to launch later this month.

A collaborative effort between NASA, the NOAA, and the US Air Force, the DSCOVR mission was originally proposed in 1998 as a way of providing near-continuous monitoring of Earth. However, the $100 million satellite has since been re-purposed as a solar observatory.

In this capacity, it will provide support to the National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center, which is charged with providing advanced warning forecasts of approaching geomagnetic storms for people here on Earth.

Illustration showing the DSCOVR satellite in orbit L1 orbit, located one million miles away from Earth. At this location, the satellite will be in the best position to monitor the constant stream of particles from the sun, known as solar wind, and provide warnings of approaching geomagnetic storms caused by solar wind about an hour before they reach Earth. Credit: NOAA

Illustration showing the DSCOVR satellite in L1 orbit, located 1.5 million km  (930,000 mi) away from Earth. Credit: NOAA

These storms, which are caused by large-scale fluctuations in solar wind, have the potential of disrupting radio signals and electronic systems, which means that everything from telecommunications, aviation, GPS systems, power grids, and every other major bit of infrastructure is vulnerable to them.

In fact, a report made by the National Research Council estimated that recovering from the most extreme geomagnetic storms could take up to a decade, and cost taxpayers in the vicinity of $1 to $2 trillion dollars. Add to the that the potential for radiation poisoning to human beings (at ground level and in orbit), as well as flora and fauna, and the need for alerts becomes clear.

Originally, the satellite was scheduled to be launched into space on Jan. 23rd from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. However, delays in the latest resupply mission to the International Space Station have apparently pushed the date of this launch back as well.

According to a source who spoke to SpaceNews, the delay of the ISS resupply mission caused scheduling pressure, as both launches are being serviced by SpaceX from Cape Canaveral. However, the same source indicated that there are no technical problems with the satellite or the Falcon 9 that will be carrying it into orbit. It is now expected to be launched on Jan. 29th at the latest.

Credit: NOAA

SpaceX will be providing the launch service for DSCOVR, which is now expected to be launched by the end of Jan aboard a Falcon 9 rocket (pictured here). Credit: NOAA

Once deployed, DSCOVR will eventually take over from NASA’s aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite, which has been in providing solar wind alerts since 1997 and is expected to remain in operation until 2024. Like ACE, the DSCOVER will orbit Earth at Lagrange 1 Point (L1), the neutral gravity point between the Earth and sun approximately 1.5 million km (930,000 mi) from Earth.

From this position, DSCOVR will be able to provide advanced warning, roughly 15 to 60 minutes before a solar wind shockwave or CME reaches Earth. This information will be essential to emergency preparedness efforts, and the data provided will also help improve predictions as to where a geomagnetic storm will impact the most.

These sorts of warnings are essential to maintaining the safety and integrity of infrastructure, but also the health and well-being of people here on Earth. Given our dependence on high-tech navigation systems, electricity, the internet, and telecommunications, a massive geomagnetic storm is not something we want to get caught off guard by!

And be sure to check out this video of the DSCOVR mission, courtesy of the NOAA:

Further Reading: NOAA

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3 Responses

  1. Aqua4U says:

    It will be interesting if ACE and DSCOVR work together to find something a single *.sat wouldn’t have seen?

    • mewo says:

      There are currently three spacecraft at Earth-Sun L1: ACE, SOHO and Konus-WIND. DSCOVR will be the fourth. Although they don’t have exactly the same purpose, and very different suites of instruments, they can still be used to gain a 3D understanding of the region around the Earth-Sun L1 point.

      It’s a pity the old ISEE-3 probe couldn’t be recovered. That would have made 5.

  2. squidgeny says:

    Deep Space Climate ObserVatoRy? Why not just throw that ‘e’ in there while they’re at it? 😛

    The word choice doesn’t even make much sense. I thought “Deep Space” applied to outside our solar system, yet the craft was first designed as an Earth-monitor and is now going to be a Sun-monitor. Confusing.

    Actually I’d be quite interested in how these names/acronyms are reached. It must be relatively important because a fair bit of design-and-print money will go into the resulting artwork. I’m guessing it’s a little more than one idea-guy thinking it up and then passing it up a manager chain for approval. A committee perhaps? Presumably it can vary a lot between different organisations, and perhaps even different missions.

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