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
, 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.”