We Only Had One Photograph of the Entire Earth—until Three Years Ago
William Anders, Earthrise, 1968. Photo via NASA.
Nearly one million miles away, balanced between the gravitational pulls of Sun and Earth, floats a satellite with a contentious history spanning four presidencies and three decades—even though it launched into space only three years ago.
Alternately known as Triana, Goresat, or by its current name, DSCOVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory), it’s the first earth science mission distant enough from our planet to capture its entire sunlit surface in a single photograph (only one such photograph, shot from Apollo 17, was previously in existence). And it does so multiple times a day, every day—with the results posted online by NASA, ready for public consumption within 12 to 36 hours. It’s a mission that was conceived of almost too fantastically: in a dream. The man who just so happened to have that dream was Al Gore, America’s vice president at the time.
What Gore imagined in 1998 was somewhat different: a perfectly situated satellite that would beam an active, uninterrupted digital view of the sunlit face of Earth back to the planet. A tireless advocate for environmental awareness, Gore hoped that the livestream would be a unifying force, garnering support for substantive changes in our behaviors. His wish was grounded in a history of extraterrestrial photographs affecting change, both legislatively and, in a much more nebulous sense, in hearts.
“They drive home the essential truth that we all share the same planetary home,” Gore said of iconic space images, like Earthrise and The Blue Marble, in an interview with NPR. “We have a common future, a common destiny.”
The Blue Marble, 1972. Photo via NASA.
Earthrise, the 1968 photograph shot on the first manned orbital mission to the moon by an Apollo 8 astronaut, was the first color photograph of our planet shot by a human no longer on it himself. Unsurprisingly, it quickly grabbed hold of the public’s attention: Seeing the Earth over the moon’s horizon, finite and fragile, is credited with spurring pro-environmental legislation and the inception of Earth Day.
The Blue Marble followed four years later in 1972, and was similarly as awe-inspiring as the first image of the Earth seen in its entirety. Shot by Apollo 17 astronauts en route to the moon, it depicts Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the island of Madagascar, Antarctica, the edge of mainland Asia, and clouds swirling over the Southern Hemisphere. As astronaut Eugene Cernan described the scene upon his return, “You can see from pole to pole and across oceans and continents and you can watch it turn and there’s no strings holding it up, and it’s moving in a blackness that is almost beyond conception.” The Blue Marble is cited as one of the most reproduced photographs in history (Gore even displayed it on the wall of his West Wing office)—a picture so ingrained in the public consciousness today that it’s difficult to grasp its magnitude when the world first locked eyes on it.
Other images of Earth were created using digital stitching techniques, but for 43 years, until DSCOVR’s launch, it was also the only full-disc image of the Earth in existence. And Gore was determined to create its photographic magic once again. That determination led him down a politically charged path. The extended fight to launch DSCOVR was, at least in part, due to polarized beliefs around climate change and national funding for science. While Gore was able to reallocate funding from other NASA missions to the satellite during the Clinton administration’s second term, he was stopped by congress in 1999 with a Republican-backed amendment targeting the satellite in NASA’s budget.
One house representative called the mission “a multimillion-dollar screensaver,” and another a “far-out boondoggle.” After a spirited defense by NASA’s administrator, the agency’s inspector general assessed the satellite, later reporting faults in its mission’s scientific value and questioning whether the large budget required was the best use of NASA’s limited funds. That evaluation was disputed in a secondary review by the National Research Council, which revived the program until George W. Bush came into office and shelved it once again. Then called Triana, the satellite sat in storage from 2001 to 2009, when the Obama administration resurrected it through a new partnership and christened it DSCOVR.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Air Force joined the venture in providing partial funding, and altered the satellite’s primary mission: Upon its launch in 2015, DSCOVR was to be operated by NOAA and focus on space weather monitoring. Without proper warning, incoming solar storms can affect GPS accuracy and cause widespread power outages, and DSCOVR proved a cost-effective replacement for an aging satellite that studies solar wind. But Gore’s dream remained partially intact thanks to the other half of DSCOVR’s mission, managed by NASA, which is focused on earth science and utilizes two instruments: the NISTAR, a radiometer; and the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC), which has 10 filters to photograph the planet’s light at different wavelengths, helping to measure ozone, aerosol, vegetation, and cloud cover levels. It’s the EPIC that produces the full-Earth images we see online today—over 13,000 and counting since launch.
Even in the vacuum of space, DSCOVR isn’t free from the hands of lawmakers. President Trump took aim at the satellite in his proposed NASA budgets for 2018 and 2019, calling, on both occasions, for DSCOVR’s Earth-viewing instruments to be shut off (their projected annual cost is $1.2 million of NASA’s multi-billion dollar budget). In March 2018, Congress saved the satellite for the current fiscal year with the passage of an omnibus appropriations bill that “explicitly funded” its ongoing earth science mission (its space weather work was never under threat). Funding of the Earth-viewing instruments for 2019 has not yet been confirmed.
DSCOVR’s pictures haven’t packed the cultural punch Gore imagined. However, his original dream of a livestream of Earth has. In February, SpaceX launched founder Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster into space, and transmitted a livestream for the first four hours of the so-called Starman’s mission on YouTube. While not yet far enough away from Earth to transmit a full-Earth image, the stream has racked up nearly 16 million views thus far.
SpaceX was, ironically, the company responsible for launching DSCOVR in 2015. Being privately held, SpaceX is able to offer a certain level of attention-grabbing showmanship in its endeavors that NASA cannot. But, whether or not they’re cultural icons, DSCOVR’s stills and hard data have provided not-insignificant scientific value—they may, for example, help with the search for life beyond Earth by aiding in the discovery of new exoplanets. According to Dr. Adam Szabo, DSCOVR’s project scientist at NASA, the satellite’s contributions are unique and ongoing.
“We don’t have any other mission providing these kind of images of Earth,” Dr. Szabo said. “Some people say, ‘Don’t you have enough? We have literally thousands of images of Earth now, how many more thousands do you need?’ I say every year is different from the last, so we always learn something new.”