The Satellite that Could Save the World

At a time when the Earth’s climate is at the top of practically every nation’s agenda, it might seem perplexing that there’s a $100-million, fully-completed climate-sensing spacecraft languishing in a warehouse in Maryland.

The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) was supposed to be delivered five years ago to the L1 Lagrangian point—a gravity-neutral parking spot between the Earth and the Sun 1.5 million kilometers away that affords a continuous, sunlit view of the planet.

From that lofty vantage, DSCOVR would beam back our first-ever measurements of the entire planet’s energy balance and reflectivity, known as albedo. This is critical data for calibrating climate change models and monitoring the progress of global warming. Yet the mission was quietly killed this year, so the satellite remains sitting in a box at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Could the decision to kill DSCOVR have anything to do with the politics of climate science? For years, Republicans have claimed the need for more data before acting to curb global warming. A letter President Bush wrote to four Republican senators in March 2001 (after DSCOVR’s endorsement by a National Academy of Sciences review panel) referred to “the incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change.”

More recently, in a 2005 briefing, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan asserted that “there is still a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the science of climate change.” Dr. Kevin Trenberth, Head of the Climate Analysis Section at National Center for Atmospheric Research, said, “It is as if the administration prefers to continue to hide behind lack of definitive data as an
excuse for lack of action and leadership.”

According to Dr. Jonah Colman, who does climate modeling at Los Alamos National Laboratory, “the availability of DSCOVR for inter-comparison between other measurements” would reconcile discrepancies in data from low-earth orbit satellites. “Albedo is incredibly important,” he added. “It can change quickly, and we currently do not have a direct method for measuring it. DSCOVR would have given us that.”

Project leader Dr. Francisco P. J. Valero, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, describes the mission as “an urgent necessity.” Dr. Robert L. Park, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, is even more blunt about the importance of DSCOVR’s data: “Not knowing may kill us.”

If we’re interested in understanding how climate changes and how to predict what’s going to happen next, DSCOVR would appear to be a crucial undertaking. So what happened? The loss of the Columbia shuttle certainly didn’t help, but the real killer of this project seems to have been partisan politics.

Back in 1998, Al Gore championed a probe that would broadcast real-time images of Earth to the Internet at the relatively cheap cost of $20 million. Named Triana (after the sailor on Columbus’ voyage who first spotted the New World), Gore hoped the probe would foster greater awareness of the fragility of the planet. The idea had come to him in a dream.

After peer review, the mission was upgraded to allow the spacecraft to continuously monitor the energy budget of the entire planet—the first one ever with this capability—making it a much more credible mission The name was later changed from Triana to DSCOVR—likely in the hope of jettisoning the Gore-dream political baggage.

Republicans didn’t buy it. In 1999, GOP Congressmen put the project on ice, dubbing it the “Goresat,” a “multimillion-dollar screen saver.” Dick Armey, then House Majority Leader quipped, “This idea supposedly came from a dream. Well, I once dreamed I caught a 10-foot bass. But I didn’t call up the Fish and Wildlife service and ask them to spend $30 million to make sure it happened.”

Lost in the partisan grandstanding was the critically important science behind DSCOVR. In January 2006, NASA quietly canceled DSCOVR altogether, citing “competing priorities.”

Many in the scientific community are incredulous that such an important mission might be lost to rank partisanship. “Gore favored it,” says Dr. Park. “This administration is determined that a Gore experiment is not going to happen. It’s inconceivable to me.” The director of public information for the American Physical Society, Dr. Park says, “I probably talk to more physicists than anyone else in the country. They all think this is tragic.” Climate analyst Trenbeth said, “It makes no sense to me at all either from an economic or a scientific viewpoint. That leaves politics.”

The Ukrainian government offered to launch DSCOVR free of charge aboard a Tsyklon II rocket, the most reliable launch vehicle in the world. France made a similar offer using one of its rockets. But NASA’s response so far has been “no thanks.” Not helping matters, Congress recently raided the NASA budget to the tune of $568.5 million for 198 non-peer reviewed “Congressional interest items”—otherwise known as pure political pork.

DSCOVR is not entirely dead yet. The NOAA is considering bankrolling the launch because DSCOVR could better warn of solar storms, protecting expensive communications satellites. Until then, assuming it’s not stripped for parts, DSCOVR will remain in a box at Goddard until a change in the political winds sends it to its rightful place at L1.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece ran in the August/September issue of SEED Magazine.