Moon Transits Earth in Eye-poppingly EPIC View from 1 Million Miles Away

This animation shows images of the far side of the moon, illuminated by the sun, as it crosses between the DISCOVR spacecraft’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera and telescope, and the Earth – one million miles away. Credit: NASA/NOAA
See YouTube version and EPIC camera below[/caption]

An eye-poppingly ‘EPIC’ view of the sunlit far side of the Moon transiting the sunlit side of Earth was recently captured by NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera from one million miles away. “Wow!” – is an understatement!

The stunning animation of the Moon crossing in front of the Earth, shown above, and seemingly unlike anything else, was created from a series of images taken in July by NASA’s EPIC camera flying aboard the orbiting Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a space weather monitoring satellite, according to a NASA statement.

Have just witnessed NASA’s New Horizons flyby of the Pluto-Charon double planet system, the similarity to what some call the Earth-Moon double planet system is eerie. You could imagine ones heart going out to Earth’s Australian continent as an upside down version of Pluto’s bright heart shaped ‘Tombaugh Regio’ region in the southern hemisphere.

EPIC is a four megapixel CCD camera and telescope mounted on DSCOVR and orbiting at the L1 Lagrange Point – a neutral gravity point that lies on the direct line between Earth and the sun.

The goal of the $340 million DSCOVR is to monitor the solar wind and aid very important forecasts of space weather at Earth from L1.

EPIC will capture “a constant view of the fully illuminated Earth as it rotates, providing scientific observations of ozone, vegetation, cloud height and aerosols in the atmosphere.”

L1 is located 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) sunward from Earth. At L1 the gravity between the sun and Earth is perfectly balanced and the DSCOVR satellite orbits about that spot just like a planet.

The EPIC images “were taken between 3:50 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. EDT on July 16, showing the moon moving over the Pacific Ocean near North America,” NASA said.

This image shows images of the far side of the moon, illuminated by the sun, as it crosses between the DISCOVR spacecraft's Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera and telescope, and the Earth - one million miles away.  Credits: NASA/NOAA
This image shows images of the far side of the moon, illuminated by the sun, as it crosses between the DISCOVR spacecraft’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera and telescope, and the Earth – one million miles away. Credits: NASA/NOAA

You can see Earth’s North Pole at the upper left side of the images which results from the orbital tilt of Earth from the vantage point of the spacecraft at the L1 Lagrange Point.

EPIC will take full disk color images of the sunlit side of Earth at least six times per day.

They will be made publically available by NASA at a dedicated website, when the camera starts its regular daily science observation campaign of the home planet in about a month during September.

NASA says the images will show varying views of the rotating Earth and they will be posted online some 12 to 36 hours after they are acquired.

Each image is actually a composite of three images taken in the red, green and blue channels of the EPIC camera to provide the final “natural color” image of Earth. Since the images are taken about 30 seconds apart as the moon is moving there is a slight but noticeable artifact on the right side of the moon, NASA explained.

Altogether, “ EPIC takes a series of 10 images using different narrowband spectral filters — from ultraviolet to near infrared — to produce a variety of science products. The red, green and blue channel images are used in these color images.”

EPIC should capture these Earth-Moon transits about twice per year as the orbit of DSCOVR crosses the orbital plane of the moon.

The closest analog according to NASA came in May 2008 when NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft “captured a similar view of Earth and the moon from a distance of 31 million miles away. The series of images showed the moon passing in front of our home planet when it was only partially illuminated by the sun.”

We never see the far side of the moon from Earth since the bodies are tidally locked. And its quite apparent from the images, that the moon’s far side looks completely different from the side facing Earth. The far side lacks the large, dark, basaltic plains, or maria, that are so prominent on the Earth-facing side.

“It is surprising how much brighter Earth is than the moon,” said Adam Szabo, DSCOVR project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

“Our planet is a truly brilliant object in dark space compared to the lunar surface.”

DSCOVR is a joint mission between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S Air Force (USAF) that is managed by NOAA. The satellite and science instruments were provided by NASA and NOAA.

Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The couch sized probe was launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Feb. 11, 2015 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to start a million mile journey to its deep space observation post. The rocket was funded by the USAF.

DSCOVR was first proposed in 1998 by then US Vice President Al Gore as the low cost ‘Triana’ satellite to take near continuous views of the Earth’s entire globe to feed to the internet as a means of motivating students to study math and science. It was eventually built as a much more capable Earth science satellite that would also conduct the space weather observations.

But Triana was shelved for purely partisan political reasons and the satellite was placed into storage at NASA Goddard and the science was lost until now.

It was also dubbed “Goresat.’

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Video caption: This animation shows images of the far side of the moon, illuminated by the sun, as it crosses between the DISCOVR spacecraft’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera and telescope, and the Earth – one million miles away. Credit: NASA/NOAA

NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER launched in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather.   Credit:  Julian Leek
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather. Credit: Julian Leek

NASA Unravels Mysteries of Magnetic Reconnection with Nighttime Blastoff of MMS Satellite Quartet – Watch Live

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A state of the art quartet of identical science satellites aimed at unraveling the mysteries of the process known as magnetic reconnection is slated for a spectacular nighttime blastoff tonight, March 12, atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The $1.1 Billion Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission is comprised of four formation flying and identically instrumented observatories whose objective is providing the first three-dimensional views of a fundamental process in nature known as magnetic reconnection.

Magnetic reconnection is a little understood natural process whereby magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect while explosively releasing vast amounts of energy. It occurs throughout the universe.

Liftoff is slated for 10:44 p.m. EDT Thursday March 12 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The launch window extends for 30 minutes. You can watch the MMS launch live on NASA TV, below, starting at 8 p.m.



Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Spectators ringing the Florida space coast region and ranging well beyond should be treated to a magnificent fireworks display and skyward streak of perhaps several minutes – weather and clouds permitting.

Currently the weather forecast is 70 percent “GO” for favorable conditions at launch time. The primary concerns for a safe and successful launch are for cumulus clouds and thick clouds.

In the event of a 24 hour delay for any reason the weather forecast is 60 percent “GO.”

Technicians work on NASA’s 20-foot-tall Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked observatories in the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Technicians work on NASA’s 20-foot-tall Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked observatories in the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The 195 foot tall rocket and encapsulated MMS satellite payload were rolled out to Space Launch Complex-41 on Wednesday March 10 at 10 a.m. on the Mobile Launch Platform (MLP) about 1800 feet from the Vertical Integration Facility or VIF to the Cape Canaveral pad.

The two stage Atlas V rocket will deliver the MMS constellation to a highly elliptical orbit.

The venerable rocket with a 100% success rate will launch in the Atlas V 421 configuration with a 4-meter diameter Extra Extended Payload Fairing along with two Aerojet Rocketdyne solid rocket motors attached to the Atlas booster first stage.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The Atlas first stage is powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage is powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A engine producing 22,300 lb of thrust.

The first stage is 12.5 ft in diameter and fueled with liquid propellants. The RD-180 burns RP-1 highly purified kerosene and liquid oxygen and delivers 860,200 lb of sea level thrust.

This is ULA’s 4th launch in 2015, the 53nd Atlas V mission and the fourth Atlas V 421 launch.

“This is the perfect time for this mission,” said Jim Burch, principal investigator of the MMS instrument suite science team at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.

“MMS is a crucial next step in advancing the science of magnetic reconnection. Studying magnetic reconnection near Earth will unlock the ability to understand how this process works throughout the entire universe.”

After a six month check out phase the probes will start science operation in September.

Unlike previous missions to observe the evidence of magnetic reconnection events, MMS will have sufficient resolution to measure the characteristics of ongoing reconnection events as they occur.

The four probes were built in-house by NASA at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland where I visited them during an inspection tour by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

I asked Bolden to explain the goals of MMS during a one-on-one interview.

“MMS will help us study the phenomena known as magnetic reconnection and help us understand how energy from the sun – magnetic and otherwise – affects our own life here on Earth,” Bolden told Universe Today.

“MMS will study what effects that process … and how the magnetosphere protects Earth.”

MMS measurements should lead to significant improvements in models for yielding better predictions of space weather and thereby the resulting impacts for life here on Earth as well as for humans aboard the ISS and robotic satellite explorers in orbit and the heavens beyond.

The best place to study magnetic reconnection is ‘in situ’ in Earth’s magnetosphere. This will lead to better predictions of space weather phenomena.

Magnetic reconnection is also believed to help trigger the spectacular aurora known as the Northern or Southern lights.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

MMS is a Solar Terrestrial Probes Program, or STP, mission within NASA’s Heliophysics Division

Watch for Ken’s ongoing MMS coverage and he’ll be onsite at the Kennedy Space Center in the days leading up to the launch on March 12.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing MMS, Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) Spacecraft Set for March Blastoff to study Earth’s Magnetic Reconnection Events

NASA’s first mission dedicated to study the process in nature known as magnetic reconnection undergoing final preparation for launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida in just under two weeks time.

The Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission is comprised of a quartet of identically instrumented observatories aimed at providing the first three-dimensional views of a fundamental process in nature known as magnetic reconnection.

Magnetic reconnection is the process whereby magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect while explosively releasing vast amounts of energy. It occurs throughout the universe.

“Magnetic reconnection is one of the most important drivers of space weather events,” said Jeff Newmark, interim director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“Eruptive solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and geomagnetic storms all involve the release, through reconnection, of energy stored in magnetic fields. Space weather events can affect modern technological systems such as communications networks, GPS navigation, and electrical power grids.”

The four MMS have been stacked on top of one another like pancakes, encapsulated in the payload fairing, transported to the launch pad, hoisted and mated to the top of the 195-foot-tall rocket.

NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) observatories are shown here in the clean room being processed for a March 12, 2015 launch from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky
NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) observatories are shown here in the clean room being processed for a March 12, 2015 launch from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

The nighttime launch of MMS on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket should put on a spectacular sky show for local spectators along the Florida space coast as well as more distant located arcing out in all directions.

Liftoff is slated for 10:44 p.m. EDT Thursday March 12 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The launch window extends for 30 minutes.

Artist rendition of the four MMS spacecraft in orbit in Earth’s magnetic field. Credit: NASA
Artist rendition of the four MMS spacecraft in orbit in Earth’s magnetic field. Credit: NASA

After a six month check out phase the probes will start science operation in September.

Unlike previous missions to observe the evidence of magnetic reconnection events, MMS will have sufficient resolution to measure the characteristics of ongoing reconnection events as they occur.

The four probes were built in-house by NASA at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland where is visited them during an inspection tour by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

I asked Bolden to explain the goals of MMS during a one-on-one interview.

“MMS will help us study the phenomena known as magnetic reconnection and help us understand how energy from the sun – magnetic and otherwise – affects our own life here on Earth,” Bolden told Universe Today.

“MMS will study what effects that process … and how the magnetosphere protects Earth.”

MMS measurements should lead to significant improvements in models for yielding better predictions of space weather and thereby the resulting impacts for life here on Earth as well as for humans aboard the ISS and robotic satellite explorers in orbit and the heavens beyond.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The best place to study magnetic reconnection is ‘in situ’ in Earth’s magnetosphere. This will lead to better predictions of space weather phenomena.

“This is the perfect time for this mission,” said Jim Burch, principal investigator of the MMS instrument suite science team at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.

“MMS is a crucial next step in advancing the science of magnetic reconnection. Studying magnetic reconnection near Earth will unlock the ability to understand how this process works throughout the entire universe.”

Magnetic reconnection is also believed to help trigger the spectacular aurora known as the Northern or Southern lights.

MMS is a Solar Terrestrial Probes Program, or STP, mission within NASA’s Heliophysics Division.

Watch for Ken’s ongoing MMS coverage and he’ll be onsite at the Kennedy Space Center in the days leading up to the launch on March 12.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing MMS, Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer
………….
Learn more about MMS, Mars rovers, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Mar 6: “MMS Update, Future of NASA Human Spaceflight, Curiosity on Mars,” Delaware Valley Astronomers Assoc (DVAA), Radnor, PA, 7 PM.

Mar 10-12: “MMS, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, Curiosity Explores Mars,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Space Weather Storm Monitoring Satellite Blasts off for Deep Space on SpaceX Rocket

After a 17 year long wait, a new American mission to monitor intense solar storms and warn of impeding space weather disruptions to vital power grids, telecommunications satellites and public infrastructure was launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Wednesday, Feb. 11, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to start a million mile journey to its deep space observation post.

The third time proved to be the charm when the Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR science satellite lifted off at 6:03 p.m. EST Wednesday from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The spectacular sunset blastoff came after two scrubs this week forced by a technical problem with the Air Force tracking radar and adverse weather on Sunday and Tuesday.

The $340 million DSCOVR has a critical mission to monitor the solar wind and aid very important forecasts of space weather at Earth at an observation point nearly a million miles from Earth. It will also take full disk color images of the sunlit side of Earth at least six times per day that will be publicly available and “wow” viewers.

Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather.   Credit:  Julian Leek
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather. Credit: Julian Leek

The couch sized probe was targeted to the L1 Lagrange Point, a neutral gravity point that lies on the direct line between Earth and the sun located 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) sunward from Earth. At L1 the gravity between the sun and Earth is perfectly balanced and the satellite will orbit about that spot just like a planet.

L1 is a perfect place for the science because it lies outside Earth’s magnetic environment. The probe will measure the constant stream of solar wind particles from the sun as they pass by.

The DSCOVR spacecraft (3-axis stabilized, 570 kg) will be delivered to the Sun-Earth L1 point, 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth, directly in front of the Sun. A Halo (Lissajous) orbit will stabilize the craft's position around the L1 point while keeping it outside the radio noise emanating from the Sun. (Illustratin Credit: NASA)
The DSCOVR spacecraft (3-axis stabilized, 570 kg) will be delivered to the Sun-Earth L1 point, 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth, directly in front of the Sun. A Halo (Lissajous) orbit will stabilize the craft’s position around the L1 point while keeping it outside the radio noise emanating from the Sun. (Illustratin Credit: NASA)

DSCOVR is a joint mission between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S Air Force (USAF) that will be managed by NOAA. The satellite and science instruments are provided by NASA and NOAA. The rocket was funded by the USAF.

The mission is vital because its solar wind observations are crucial to maintaining accurate space weather forecasts to protect US infrastructure such as power grids, aviation, planes in flight, all types of Earth orbiting satellites for civilian and military needs, telecommunications, ISS astronauts and GPS systems.

It will take about 150 days to reach the L1 point and complete satellite and instrument checkouts.

DSCOVR will then become the first operational space weather mission to deep space and function as America’s primary warning system for solar magnetic storms.

It will replace NASA’s aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite which is nearly 20 years old and far beyond its original design lifetime.

“DSCOVR is the latest example of how NASA and NOAA work together to leverage the vantage point of space to both understand the science of space weather and provide direct practical benefits to us here on Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

DSCOVR was first proposed in 1998 by then US Vice President Al Gore as the low cost ‘Triana’ satellite to take near continuous views of the Earth’s entire globe to feed to the internet as a means of motivating students to study math and science. It was eventually built as a much more capable Earth science satellite that would also conduct the space weather observations.

But Triana was shelved for purely partisan political reasons and the satellite was placed into storage at NASA Goddard and the science was lost until now.

DSCOVR mission logo.  Credit: NOAA/NASA/U.S. Air Force
DSCOVR mission logo. Credit: NOAA/NASA/U.S. Air Force

DSCOVR is equipped with a suite of four continuously operating solar science and Earth science instruments from NASA and NOAA.

It will make simultaneous scientific observations of the solar wind and the entire sunlit side of Earth.

The 750-kilogram (1250 pound) DSCOVR probe measures 54 inches by 72 inches.

Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace

The two Earth science instruments from NASA are the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology Advanced Radiometer (NISTAR).

EPIC will provide true color spectral images of the entire sunlit face of Earth at least six times per day, as viewed from an orbit around L1. They will be publically available within 24 hours via NASA Langley.

It will view the full disk of the entire sunlit Earth from sunrise to sunset and collect a variety of science measurements including on ozone, aerosols, dust and volcanic ash, vegetation properties, cloud heights and more.

Listen to my post launch interview with the BBC about DSCOVR and ESA’s successful IXV launch on Feb. 11.

A secondary objective by SpaceX to recover the Falcon 9 first stage booster on an ocean going barge had to be skipped due to very poor weather and very high waves in the Atlantic Ocean making a safe landing impossible. The stage did successfully complete a soft landing in the ocean.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather.   Credit:  John Studwell
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather. Credit: John Studwell
Prelaunch view of SpaceX rocket on Cape Canaveral launch pad taken from LC-39 at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Chuck Higgins
Prelaunch view of SpaceX rocket on Cape Canaveral launch pad taken from LC-39 at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Chuck Higgins

NOAA/NASA/USAF Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) Launching Feb. 8 to Monitor Solar Winds

The long awaited Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR science satellite is slated to blast off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Sunday, Feb. 8, from Cape Canaveral, Florida on a mission to monitor the solar wind and aid very important forecasts of space weather at Earth.

DSCOVR is a joint mission between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S Air Force (USAF) that will be managed by NOAA. The satellite and science instruments are provided by NASA and NOAA.

Update Feb 8: Hold, Hold, Hold !!! 6:10 PM 2/8/15 Terminal Count aborted at T Minus 2 min 26 sec due to a tracking issue. NO launch of Falcon 9 today. rocket being safed now. next launch opportunity is Monday. Still TBD.

The rocket is provided by the USAF. SpaceX will try to recover the first stage via a guided descent to a floating barge in the Atlantic Ocean.

The weather outlook is currently very promising with a greater than 90 percent chance of favorable weather at launch time shortly after sunset on Sunday which could make for a spectacular viewing opportunity for spectators surrounding the Florida Space coast.

Liftoff atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is targeted for at 6:10:12 p.m. EST on Feb. 8, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40.

There is an instantaneous launch window, meaning that any launch delay due to weather, technical or other factors will force a scrub to Monday.

The launch will be broadcast live on NASA TV: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

NASA’s DSCOVR launch blog coverage of countdown and liftoff will begin at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace

“DSCOVR is NOAA’s first operational space weather mission to deep space,” said Stephen Volz, assistant administrator of the NOAA Satellite and Information Service in Silver Spring, Maryland, at the pre-launch briefing today (Feb. 7) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The mission of DSCOVR is vital because its solar wind observations are crucial to maintaining accurate space weather forecasts to protect US infrastructure from disruption by approaching solar storms.

“DSCOVR will maintain the nation’s solar wind observations, which are critical to the accuracy and lead time of NOAA’s space weather alerts, forecasts, and warnings,” according to a NASA description.

“Space weather events like geomagnetic storms caused by changes in solar wind can affect public infrastructure systems, including power grids, telecommunications systems, and aircraft avionics.”

DSCOVR will replace NASA’s aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite which is nearly 20 years old and far beyond its original design lifetime.

The couch sized probe is being targeted to the L1 Lagrange Point, a neutral gravity point that lies on the direct line between Earth and the sun located 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) sunward from Earth. At L1 the gravity between the sun and Earth is perfectly balanced and the satellite will orbit about that spot just like a planet.

L1 is a perfect place for the science because it lies outside Earth’s magnetic environment. The probe will measure the constant stream of solar wind particles from the sun as they pass by.

Diagram of the five Lagrange points associated with the sun-Earth system, showing DSCOVR orbiting the L-1 point. Image is not to scale.  Credit:  NASA/WMAP Science Team
Diagram of the five Lagrange points associated with the sun-Earth system, showing DSCOVR orbiting the L-1 point. Image is not to scale. Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team

This will enable forecasters to give a 15 to 60 minute warning of approaching geomagnetic storms that could damage valuable infrastructure.

DSCOVR is equipped with a suite of four continuously operating solar science and Earth science instruments from NASA and NOAA.

It will make simultaneous scientific observations of the solar wind and the entire sunlit side of Earth.

Three instruments will help measure the solar wind on the DSCOVR mission: (shown from left to right), the Faraday cup to monitor the speed and direction of positively-charged solar wind particles, the electron spectrometer to monitor electrons, and a magnetometer to measure magnetic fields.  Credit: NASA/DSCOVR
Three instruments will help measure the solar wind on the DSCOVR mission: (shown from left to right), the Faraday cup to monitor the speed and direction of positively-charged solar wind particles, the electron spectrometer to monitor electrons, and a magnetometer to measure magnetic fields. Credit: NASA/DSCOVR

The 750-kilogram DSCOVR probe measures 54 inches by 72 inches.

I saw the DSCOVR spacecraft up close at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland last fall during processing in the clean room.

NOAA/NASA/USAF Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room.  Probe will launch in February atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NOAA/NASA/USAF Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Probe will launch in February atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

A secondary objective of the rocket launch for SpaceX is to conduct their second attempt to recover the Falcon 9 first stage booster on an ocean going barge. Read my articles about the first attempt in January 2015, starting here.

It was originally named ‘Triana’ (aka Goresat) and was conceived by then US Vice President Al Gore as a low cost satellite to take near continuous views of the Earth’s entire globe to feed to the internet as a means of motivating students to study math and science. It was eventually built as a much more capable Earth science satellite as well as to conduct the space weather observations.

But Triana was shelved for purely partisan political reasons and the satellite was placed into storage and the science was lost until now.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The team is ready for the launch of NASA's DSCOVR spacecraft aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. L/R Mike Curie KSC NASA News Chief, Stephen Volz, assistant administrator NOAA, Tom Berger, director of NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center Boulder Colorado,Steven Clark, NASA Joint Agency Satellite Division, Col. D. Jason Cothern, Space Demonstration Division chief at Kirkland AFB NM. Hans Koenigsmann, VP of mission assurance at SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, Mike McAlaneen, launch weather officer 45th Space wing Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Credit: Julian Leek
The team is ready for the launch of NASA’s DSCOVR spacecraft aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. L/R Mike Curie KSC NASA News Chief, Stephen Volz, assistant administrator NOAA, Tom Berger, director of NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center Boulder Colorado,Steven Clark, NASA Joint Agency Satellite Division, Col. D. Jason Cothern, Space Demonstration Division chief at Kirkland AFB NM. Hans Koenigsmann, VP of mission assurance at SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, Mike McAlaneen, launch weather officer 45th Space wing Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

Awesome Photo Shows Monster Sunspot Aiming Our Way

It’s a-comin’: a “monster” sunspot is steadily rotating around the Sun’s southern hemisphere and will soon be in position to fire flares and CMEs in our direction — and this past weekend master solar photographer Alan Friedman captured it on camera!

The image above was taken in full-spectrum visible light on Sunday, Oct. 19 by Alan from his backyard in Buffalo, New York. Sunspots 2186 (at the top limb), 2187 (upper center), 2193 (the small middle cluster) and the enormous AR2192 are easily visible as dark blotches – “cooler” regions on the Sun’s surface where upwelling magnetic fields interrupt the convective processes that drive the Sun’s energy output.

This particular image was a single frame of video, unlike some of Alan’s other photographs. According to Alan the air turbulence was particularly bad that day, shooting between the clouds, so only this one frame was usable. Click the image for full-scale “wow” factor.

(And if you think AR2192 looks scary in that image, check it out in CaK bands here!)

Scale size of Earth compared to AR2192 on Oct. 20 (NASA/SDO/AIA. Edit by J. Major.)
Scale size of Earth compared to AR2192 on Oct. 20 (NASA/SDO/AIA. Diagram by J. Major.)

According to Spaceweather.com AR2192 has grown considerably over the past few days and has the potential to unleash M- and X-class flares in our direction now that it’s moving into Earth-facing position. It’s currently many times larger than Earth and will likely get even bigger… in fact, during this week’s partial solar eclipse AR2192 should be visible with the naked (but not unprotected!) eye for viewers across much of North America.

See more of Alan’s photography on his Averted Imagination site here (with prints available for purchase) and watch a TEDx presentation by Alan on how and why he does solar photography.

Image © Alan Friedman. Used with permission.

A New Marker Might Better Track the Solar Cycle

This image from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT) image shows large magnetically active regions and a pair of curving erupting prominences on June 28, 2000 during the current solar cycle 23 maximum. Prominences are huge clouds of relatively cool dense plasma suspended in the Sun's hot, thin corona. Magnetically active regions cause the principal total solar irradiance variations during each solar cycle. The hottest areas appear almost white, while the darker red areas indicate cooler temperatures. Credit: NASA & European Space Agency (ESA)

Approximately every 11 years the Sun becomes violently active, putting on a show of magnetic activity for aurora watchers and sungazers alike. But the timing of the solar cycle is far from precise, making it hard to determine the exact underlying physics.

Typically astronomers use sunspots to map the course of the solar cycle, but now an international team of astronomers have discovered a new marker: brightpoints, small bright spots in the solar atmosphere that allow us to observe the constant turmoil of material inside the Sun.

The new markers provide a new method in understanding how the Sun’s magnetic field evolves over time, suggesting a deeper and longer cycle.

A well-behaved Sun flips its north and south magnetic poles every 11 years. The cycle begins when the field is weak and dipolar. But the Sun’s rotation is faster at its equator than at its poles, and this difference stretches and tangles the magnetic field lines, ultimately producing sunspots, prominences, and sometimes flares.

“Sunspots have been the perennial marker for understanding the mechanisms that rule the sun’s interior,” said lead author Scott McIntosh, from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in a news release. “But the processes that make sunspots are not well understood, and far less, those that govern their migration and what drives their movement.”

So McIntosh and colleagues developed a new tracking devise: spots of extreme ultraviolet and X-ray light, known as brightpoints in the Sun’s atmosphere, or corona.

“Now we can see there are bright points in the solar atmosphere, which act like buoys anchored to what’s going on much deeper down,” said McIntosh. “They help us develop a different picture of the interior of the sun.”

McIntosh and colleagues dug through the wealth of data available from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory and the Solar Dynamics Observatory. They noticed that multiple bands of these markers also move steadily toward the equator over time. But they do so on a different timescale than sunspots.

At solar minimum there might be two bands in the northern hemisphere (one positive and one negative) and two bands in the southern hemisphere (one negative and one positive). Due to their close proximity, bands of opposite charge easily cancel one another, causing the Sun’s magnetic system to be calmer, producing fewer sunspots and eruptions.

But once the two low-latitude bands reach the equator, their polarities cancel each other out and the bands abruptly disappear — a process that takes 19 years on average.

The Sun is now left with just two large bands that have migrated to about 30 degrees latitude. Without the nearby band, the polarities don’t cancel. At this point the Sun’s calm face begins to become violently active as sunspots start to grow rapidly.

Solar maximum only lasts so long, however, because the process of generating a new band of opposite polarity has already begun at high latitudes.

In this scenario, it is the magnetic band’s cycle that truly defines the solar cycle. “Thus, the 11-year solar cycle can be viewed as the overlap between two much longer cycles,” said coauthor Robert Leamon, from Montana State University in Bozeman.

The true test, however, will come with the next solar cycle. McIntosh and colleagues predict that the Sun will enter a solar minimum somewhere in the last half of 2017, and the first sunspots of the next cycle will appear near the end of 2019.

The findings have been published in the Sept. 1 issue of the Astrophysical Journal and are available online.

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission to Provide 1st 3-D View of Earth’s Magnetic Reconnection Process – Cleanroom visit with Bolden

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
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NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD – NASA’s upcoming Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission is comprised of a quartet of identically instrumented observatories aimed at providing the first three-dimensional views of a fundamental process in nature known as magnetic reconnection. They were unveiled to greet NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on Monday, May 12, in a rare fully stacked arrangement inside the Goddard cleanroom.

Universe Today was on hand with NASA Administrator Bolden, Science Mission Chief John Grunsfeld and the MMS mission team at Goddard for a first hand inspection and up close look at the 20 foot tall, four spacecraft stacked configuration in the cleanroom and for briefings about the projects fundamental science goals.

“I’m visiting with the MMS team today to find out the status of this mission scheduled to fly early in 2015. It’s one of many projects here at Goddard,” NASA Administrator Bolden told me in an exclusive one-on-one interview at the MMS cleanroom.

“MMS will help us study the phenomena known as magnetic reconnection and help us understand how energy from the sun – magnetic and otherwise – affects our own life here on Earth. MMS will study what effects that process … and how the magnetosphere protects Earth.”

Magnetic reconnection is the process whereby magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect while explosively releasing vast amounts of energy.

Technicians work on NASA’s 20-foot-tall Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked observatories in the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Technicians work on NASA’s 20-foot-tall Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked observatories in the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

MMS measurements should lead to significant improvements in models for yielding better predictions of space weather and thereby the resulting impacts for life here on Earth as well as for humans aboard the ISS and robotic satellite explorers in orbit and the heavens beyond.

The four identical spacecraft – which are still undergoing testing – were stacked in a rarely seen launch arrangement known affectionately as the “IHOP configuration” – because they look rather like a stack of luscious pancakes.

“MMS is a fundamental heliophysics science mission,” Craig Tooley told me at the MMS cleanroom. Tooley is MMS project manager at NASA Goddard.

“Unlike Hubble that uses remote sensing, MMS is like a flying laboratory ‘in situ’ that will capture events that are the major energy transfer from the sun’s magnetic field into our Earth’s space weather environment and magnetosphere.”

“These are called magnetic reconnection events that pump enormous amounts of energy into the plasma and the fields around Earth. It’s one of the main drivers of space weather and a fundamental physical process that is not very well understood,” Tooley explained.

“The spacecraft were built in-house here at Goddard and just completed vibration testing.”

MMS will launch atop an Atlas V rocket in March 2015 from Space launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Artist rendition of the four MMS spacecraft in orbit in Earth’s magnetic field. Credit: NASA
Artist rendition of the four MMS spacecraft in orbit in Earth’s magnetic field. Credit: NASA

The vibration testing is a major milestone and is conducted to ensure the spacecraft can withstand the most extreme vibration and dynamic loads they will experience and which occurs during liftoff inside the fairing of the Atlas V booster.

MMS is also another highly valuable NASA science mission (along with MAVEN, LADEE and others) which suffered launch delays and increased costs as a result of the US government shutdown last October 2013, Bolden confirmed to Universe Today.

“We ended up slipping beyond the original October 2014 date due to the government shutdown and [the team] being out of work for a couple of weeks. MMS is now scheduled to launch in March 2015,” Bolden told me.

“So then you are at the mercy of the launch provider.”

“The downside to slipping that far is that’s its [MMS] costing more to launch,” Bolden stated.

Each of the Earth orbiting spacecraft is outfitted with 25 science sensors to study the microphysics of three fundamental plasma processes: magnetic reconnection, energetic particle acceleration, and turbulence.

Magnetic reconnection occurs throughout our universe.

“The primary mission will last two years,” Tooley told me.

“Each spacecraft carries about 400 kilograms of fuel. There is a possibility to extend the mission by about a year based on fuel consumption.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Ken Kremer (Universe Today) inspect NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked spacecraft at the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Ken Kremer (Universe Today) inspect NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked spacecraft at the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The spacecraft will use the Earth itself as a laboratory to unlock the mysteries of magnetic reconnection – the primary process that transfers energy from the solar wind into Earth’s magnetosphere and is responsible for geomagnetic storms.

“To understand the fundamental physics, they will fly in a pyramid-like formation and capture the magnetic reconnection events in 3-D by flying through them as they happen – that’s why we have 4 spacecraft,” Tooley explained.

“Initially they will be spaced apart by about 10 to 30 kilometers while they fly in a tetrahedron formation and scan with their booms spread out – depending on what the scientists says is the optimal configuration.”

“They fly in a highly elliptical orbit between about 7,000 and 75,000 kilometers altitude during the first half of the mission. Eventually the orbit will be extended out to about 150,000 kilometers.”

The best place to study magnetic reconnection is ‘in situ’ in Earth’s magnetosphere.

This will lead to better predictions of space weather phenomena.

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission
NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission

Magnetic reconnection is also believed to help trigger the spectacular aurora known as the Northern or Southern lights.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing MMS, Curiosity, Opportunity, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Boeing, Orion, LADEE, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………

Ken’s upcoming presentation: Mercy College, NY, May 19: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars” and “NASA’s Future Crewed Spaceships.”

MMS Project Manager Craig Tooley (right) and Ken Kremer (Universe Today) discuss  science objectives of NASA’s upcoming Magnetospheric Multiscale mission by 20 foot tall mated quartet of stacked spacecraft at the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
MMS Project Manager Craig Tooley (right) and Ken Kremer (Universe Today) discuss science objectives of NASA’s upcoming Magnetospheric Multiscale mission by 20 foot tall mated quartet of stacked spacecraft at the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Monster Sunspot Erupts with an X-Class Flare

Solar astronomers have been keeping an eye on giant sunspot AR1944, and as it turned towards Earth today, the sunspot erupted with a powerful X1.2-class flare. NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center said the flare sparked a “strong radio blackout” today, and they have issued a 24 hour “moderate” magnetic storm watch indicating a coronal mass ejection (CME) associated with the flare may be heading towards Earth. A CME is a fast moving cloud of charged particles which can interact with Earth’s atmosphere to cause aurora, so observers in northern and southern latitudes should be on the lookout for aurora, possibly through January 10.

Here’s a video of the flare from the Solar Dynamics Observatory:

The SWPC forecasters said they are anticipating G2 (Moderate) Geomagnetic Storm conditions to occur on January 9, followed by G1 (Minor) levels January 10. NOAA estimates the CME headed towards Earth might produce a Kp number of 6.

The Earth-directed CME launched from AR1944 at 1832 UTC (1:32 p.m. EST) on January 7. Here’s an animation of the CME. Astronomers have said that this sunspot region remains “well-placed and energetic” so there could be subsequent activity.

A closeup look at sunspot AR1944 on January 6, 2013, comparing its size to Earth. Credit and copyright:  Ron Cottrell.
A closeup look at sunspot AR1944 on January 6, 2013, comparing its size to Earth. Credit and copyright: Ron Cottrell.

According to SpaceWeather.com, AR1944 has “an unstable ‘beta-gamma-delta’ magnetic field,” making it ripe for activity. Here’s a quick video of today’s X-class flare showing the coronal wave:

AR144 as seen on January 7, 2014. At the bottom are size comparisons to Earth and Jupiter. Credit and copyright: Giuseppe Petricca.
AR144 as seen on January 7, 2014. At the bottom are size comparisons to Earth and Jupiter. Credit and copyright: Giuseppe Petricca.

The Solar Dynamics Observatory has a “self-updating” webpage showing the latest views of the Sun in various wavelengths.

What Left These Spooky Trails in the Sky?

Ball lightning? Spectral orbs? Swamp gas? Early this morning, May 7, these eerie glowing trails were seen in the sky above the Marshall Islands and were captured on camera by NASA photographer John Grant. Of course, if NASA’s involved there has to be a reasonable explanation, right?

For a larger image (and to see what really caused the trails) click below:

Credit: NASA/Jon Grant
Credit: NASA/John Grant

Although it might look like cheesy special effects, these colorful clouds are actually visible trails that were left by two sounding rockets launched from Roi Namur in the Marshall Islands, at 3:39 a.m. EDT on May 7. The rockets were part of the NASA-funded EVEX experiment to study winds and electrical activity in the upper atmosphere.

The red cloud was formed by the release of lithium vapor and the white-and-blue tracer clouds were formed by the release of trimethyl aluminum (TMA). These clouds allowed scientists on the ground from various locations in the Marshall Islands to observe neutral winds in the ionosphere.

“Neutral winds are one of the hardest things to study,” said Doug Rowland, an EVEX team member at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “One can’t physically see the wind, and it is difficult to measure from the ground, so we use the TMA as a tracer.”

Launch of the second EVEX rocket on the morning of May 7. The plume from the first is visible on the left. (NASA/John Grant)
Launch of the second EVEX rocket on the morning of May 7. The plume from the first is visible on the left. (NASA/John Grant)

The EVEX (Equatorial Vortex Experiment) rockets were launched 90 seconds apart. By staggering the launches the two rockets were able to gather data simultaneously at two altitudes through the ionosphere.

Beginning about 60 miles (96 km) up, the ionosphere is a crucial layer of charged particles surrounding our planet. This layer serves as the medium through which high frequency radio waves – such as those sent down to the ground by satellites – travel. Governed by Earth’s magnetic field, high-altitude winds, and incoming material and energy from the sun, the ionosphere can be calm at certain times of day and at other times turbulent, disrupting satellite signals.

The EVEX experiment is designed to measure events in two separate regions of the ionosphere to see how they work together to drive it from placid and smooth to violently disturbed. Such information could ultimately lead to the ability to accurately forecast this important aspect of space weather.

Read more here.

Image source: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr