flickr/NASA Goddard

A Sneak Peek At NASA’s New Satellite That Has Been 16 Years In The Making

NASA GODDARD SPACE CENTER, MARYLAND — Adam Szabo, project scientist for the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite, talks about space weather with the casual familiarity that most people discuss weather on Earth.

“You look up every day and the sun is there; it looks pretty much the same,” said Szabo in a small conference room located deep within the NASA Goddard Center complex in Greenbelt, Maryland. “In reality it varies quite a bit.”

Szabo has been working on the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite, or DSCOVR, with a sense of urgency as the launch, scheduled for this Sunday from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, nears. He will travel down to the site for the big day, where he will have to divide his attention between focusing on the launch and engaging VIP attendees such as a Congressional delegation and former Vice President Al Gore, a long-time proponent of the project.

Szabo speaks with a sharp Hungarian accent almost stereotypically appropriate of a space physicist. The rapid pace at which he delivers his remarks hints at the continuous and complex thought process taking place in the space inside his head. As project scientist, he said his real work will start after the launch, when he has to turn on all the instruments and start calibrating them as the satellite prepares for operation some six months later.

A joint effort between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Air Force, the DSCOVR will both monitor space weather to help assess its impact on Earth’s magnetic field, as well as provide valuable earth science measurements that will greatly contribute to understanding earth science, including climate change.

“It’s a very exciting time for us,” said Albert Vernacchio, DSCOVR Project Manager, from his spacious office next to the conference room. “Getting a spacecraft into a new phase of the mission; it’s a very critical event and we want to make sure it goes perfectly.”

Vernacchio was only able to speak momentarily due to his busy pre-launch schedule but he noted another significance of the launch: it is the first time that the Air Force is partnering with SpaceX, a space transport and rocket company founded in 2002 by Tesla CEO Elon Musk. As the chosen vendor, SpaceX will provide the launch service.

As a new player on the scene, the event also holds special significance for SpaceX’s future operations. The launch will mark the company’s second attempt to land a rocket on an ocean-borne landing pad, which would be a breakthrough in reusable rocket technology and could lead to significant cost-savings in an industry weighed down with outsized expenses. SpaceX was somewhat successful in pulling off the stunt in January when the company’s Falcon 9 touched down on the floating platform but was rendered unusable due to damages incurred in the rough landing.

“We’re excited to get the project kicked-off and provide useful data for both solar physics and earth science,” said Vernacchio.

Excited might be an understatement. The seed of the DSCOVR project actually dates back 16 years to 1998, when Al Gore proposed the idea of a satellite that would give “a clearer view of our world.” Formerly known as the Triana satellite, the undertaking received push-back in Congress from Republicans who saw it as a distraction from NASA’s core mission and a “far-out boondoggle,” as stated by then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey. With Republicans recently back in control of both chambers of Congress, and conservative ideologues Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) heading the committees that oversee NASA and NOAA, these partisan debates that can impede or set back scientific endeavors are likely to rage again — especially when they relate to climate change.

Both Cruz and Rubio have tried to eschew weighing in on climate change recently by employing the refrain that they are not scientists. At the very least, the flip of the Senate will make progress at environmentally-oriented agencies like NASA, NOAA, and the EPA far more difficult and time consuming.

From the conference room, Szabo walked-and-talked his way across a parking lot and partially frozen lawn to the large, hangar-like structure where spacecraft are constructed and tested. The DSCOVR satellite had been transported to Florida weeks before, where it needed to be reassessed after the bumpy highway trip and then prepared for launch, but the expansive, airy interior hummed with activity.

As we toured the complex, workers in full-body protective suits entered sealed chambers to test equipment. Control panels reminiscent of any number of space travel movies peeked out from behind larger stacks of equipment. Cylindrical testing chambers meant to simulate conditions in outer space lined a football field-length room. Nearby, another area, sealed off with a door more than a foot thick, contained an enormous gramophone-looking device used to test how equipment stands up to loud noises in space. A bright pink plywood structure, one of many color codes used to help identify materials, occupied the center of a smaller room, leaving one to wonder what space-worthy device it once supported.

Space Weather And Solar Wind

The term ‘space weather’ primarily entails solar wind, which is nothing like regular wind aside from the fact that it moves quickly. Solar wind occurs when charged particles “boil out” from the outer corona of the sun at speeds 20 to 30 times faster than the fastest rockets. Some of these fast-moving particles collide with Earth’s magnetosphere, and the especially big bursts can compress the Earth’s magnetic field and cause weird things to happen. The National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center has been forecasting approaching geomagnetic storms like these for years. DSCOVR will provide the most advanced warnings of these occurrences yet.

“Who cares?” said Szabo. “Well it turns out the power grid cares.”

When it comes to the electric grid, these jolts can generate extra currents in power lines that are already carrying excess loads, causing them to blow up. DSCOVR will help grid operators prepare for this type of shockwave — which can occur as frequently as every decade. By devising ways to quarantine and re-route parts of the grid, negative impacts such as power outages can be minimized.

The warnings offer power companies mere minutes to adjust their operations and prevent the most devastating damage. The geomagnetic storms can also disrupt telecommunications, aviation, and GPS systems. Szabo said that another “long piece of wire” that could be impacted by solar wind bursts are pipelines.

“They’re not going to light on fire or anything, but the welding nowadays is electrical and piping extra currents through the pipelines will weaken welds.” He added that over time this could lead to the erosion of welds and therefore leaks.

“This is something that pipeline companies are very interested in,” he said. “Many of these pipelines are in the wilderness and people don’t just sit there and watch the welds.”

The data provided by DSCOVR will help the pipeline industry better understand the cumulative impact of the magnetic interference. Szabo said pipeline companies are involved in the project and awaiting the data.

Adam Szabo, DSCOVR Project Scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Adam Szabo, DSCOVR Project Scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Ari Phillips

The New Instrument Called EPIC And What It Means For Climate Science

The pipeline-monitoring ability of the satellite is only an ancillary part of the apparatus’ overall contribution to environmental issues. Using a new instrument called EPIC, or the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera, DSCOVR will capture Earth in one picture — something that hasn’t been done before from a satellite. By applying ten different lens “filters” to the images, researchers will be able to use the data provided to observe new phenomena about ozone, aerosols, dust and volcanic ash, cloud height, vegetation cover and climate change. EPIC will take full-Earth pictures about every two hours.

Most earth science missions use satellites that fly as low as possible in order to make high-resolution observations; EPIC, however, will provide a unique vantage point, taking images from a distance about four times further than the moon. Rather than relying on a stitched-together composite image of the Earth requiring a time variable to generate, EPIC will be able to offer variation in less than 24-hour intervals — showing how things change from morning to evening, for instance. It was built by Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center, in Palo Alto, California, and will have a resolution of between 15 and 20 miles.

“We can track dust from deserts,” said Szabo. “Turns out in the southern U.S. and Central America, dust from the Sahara Desert is a big problem. Weird as it sounds, that’s how it is. It’s normally not visible to the human eye, but with the right wavelengths, we can track it.”

It can also track green-leaf area through another wavelength filter, something data researchers can use to better understand how forests are changing (i.e. disappearing) over time, as well as how significantly changes in weather or climate are affecting agriculture. By comparing the areas where crops are budding and turning green against previous records it will be possible to gauge a crop’s outlook far ahead of time and try and help farmers better compensate for drought conditions.

When it comes to climate science, Szabo was most excited about the NIST Advanced Radiometer (NISTAR), which in simple terms “takes a single pixel image of the Earth.” Whatever light goes into this very precisely-calculated instrument will be stuck, unable to escape. This trapped light will provide a measurement of energy, and will help determine the Earth’s “radiation budget’: i.e. if the Earth’s atmosphere is retaining more or less solar energy than it radiates back to space. If Earth keeps in more solar energy than it loses, then it will warm.

Readings from NISTAR will provide another critical data point to be incorporated into climate models in an effort to better predict how human contributions to greenhouse gasses are disrupting the natural state of the biosphere.

Not The End Of The Story

Szabo has been working on these issues for his entire career. He was involved with the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft, which launched in 1994 to take solar weather measurements and which will be replaced by the DSCOVR satellite. He is also working on a new mission to fly a spacecraft into the flames of the sun, “a really hard challenge” that was started in 2000 and could launch in 2018 if all goes well.

Szabo speaks equally pragmatically regarding the challenges of human-caused climate change.

“Whatever we pump into the atmosphere is clearly not good,” he said. “Just like smoking is not good. The question becomes how much smoking can you get away with before it kills you?”

While this is a very hard question — one whose answer comes ever so closer with new NASA and NOAA instruments like DSCOVR — Szabo agrees that reducing the amount of greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere can do no wrong. How exactly this can be accomplished is a much larger problem.

“How do you convince the masses that it’s in their long-term interest to curb their short-term interest?” he said.

Part of this could be accomplished through improved science education for the general public, an area Szabo is especially frustrated with. He says most people hear these grand pronouncements about climate change or other scientific developments and all they hear is “blah blah blah problem, blah blah blah big.”

“I have to be very careful that when I say things they are not taken out of context,” he said. “And I have to simplify things almost to the point where they become too simple to be meaningful. If we could educate people to a higher degree, lots of discussions about climate change could rise above the level of ‘yes’ and ‘no.’”

Szabo is right on in pointing out the great rift between the American public and U.S. scientists in their understanding of scientific issues including vaccines, genetically modified food, and climate change. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center, for example, found that while 87 percent of scientists said climate change is mostly due to human activity, only half of the public agreed.

Ted Cruz And The Political Process

In January, Tea Party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), elected by a state especially wary of climate change science, took over as chair of the subcommittee that oversees NASA, causing those familiar with his anti-science rhetoric great apprehension regarding the direction of the agency. Cruz, who will be able to determine NASA’s budgetary guidelines through his appropriations decisions, has said he supports NASA’s “primary mission: exploring space and developing the wealth of new technologies that stem from its exploration.”

What he doesn’t support is using NASA’s resources and new technologies to further climate science, because he doesn’t believe that climate change should be a priority or that humans are driving it. Regarding NASA’s climate programs under President Obama, Cruz said they have “degraded manned exploration” and “shifted the funding to global warming pursuits, rather than carrying out NASA’s core mission.”

On Monday, NASA announced its 2016 budget request of $18.5 billion dollars, which is what the agency and the White House hope to get approved by Congress. It’s a half-billion-dollar increase over last year’s enacted budget, something Congress will take note of as the House and Senate create their own budgets to be submitted to the President to sign. The big takeaway from the proposal is a request for $30 million to start planning a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which sounds like something Cruz could get on board with. The budget request includes $5.288 billion for science, including $1.947 billion for earth science, and it does not specify what would go directly towards studying the impacts of climate change.

Americans have looked to space for inspiration for decades, making NASA one of the most liked and well-funded science programs in the country. While near-sun missions and Mars rovers are still part of the appeal, the fruits of this labor now orbit all around us — providing a reminder, and offering a better understanding, of how Earth is changing under human leadership, or lack thereof.

UPDATE

On Sunday, Feb. 8th, the DSCOVR launch was canceled minutes before blast off due to problems with radar used for tracking the rocket. Due to poor weather on Monday, the next launch opportunity is Tuesday at 6:05 p.m. Eastern time.

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