Obama Rescues Al Gore's Earth Satellite for Sun Duty ... and Maybe More

The long and winding story of DSCOVR, the satellite proposed in 1998 by then-Vice President Al Gore and killed by the George W. Bush Administration, has taken a new turn. This week, President Barack Obama proposed launching the controversial satellite, which would send a craft a million miles away to sit between the sun and Earth.

The news that Obama wants to launch the craft was announced as part of the rollout of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) budget (see p. 641), though it received scant attention at the time.

DSCOVR sits in storage at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center outside Washington, D.C. While the Bush Administration officially terminated plans to launch the satellite in 2006, congressional appropriators instructed the agency to spend $14 million in 2009 and 2010 refurbishing the satellite.

NOAA says it wants to use the satellite to monitor space weather from the sun, which can disrupt electronics on Earth. It puts the cost to prepare the satellite and its instruments at $9.5 million for this year and a total of $65 million once the satellite is launched.

Climate scientists would like to add sensors to the satellite, which can measure Earth’s radiation budget. NASA hasn't yet said whether it wants to invest money in adding those instruments, but plans don't preclude the Earth sensors. Supporters such as senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) will no doubt try to do exactly that. The NOAA budget also mentions the Air Force as taking responsibility for launch, which could be as soon as 2013.

“This is immensely positive news; things are coming to fruition,” says Francisco Valero of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. He is the principal investigator for two Earth-sensing instruments that would presumably fly on DSCOVR if Congress approves Obama’s plans. "I have been fighting this thing since 1998," he says.

(Image courtesy Francisco Valero)