A climate satellite is built and paid for. Nations offer to launch it for free. Scientists say it's an essential mission. So what's it doing in a box outside DC?

Credit: Yarek Waszul

From the SEPTEMBER 2006 issue of Seed:

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 satellite stored 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 that affords a continuous, sunlit view of the planet. From here, DSCOVR would measure the planet’s energy balance and reflectivity, known as albedo, which is critical data for calibrating climate change models and monitoring the ozone layer. Yet the mission was quietly killed this year, so the satellite is 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.”

Did spiking the mission have anything to do with the politics of global warming? Climate scientists think so.

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 coffin nail 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. Dubbed 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, he admitted publicly, had come to him in a dream.

After a peer review process, 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 baggage.

Republicans didn’t buy it. In 1999, GOP Congressmen put the project on ice, calling 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 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.” 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, France made a similar offer. But NASA’s response so far has been “no thanks.”

DSCOVR is not entirely dead yet. 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.

Originally published September 18, 2006


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