Francisco Valero has waited 17 years for this day to come, and it appears he’ll have to wait some more. Having travelled to Florida to see his life’s work finally take flight, spells of bad weather have delayed the launch of the SpaceX rocket carrying instrument packages he designed with his team from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Yet Valero remains patient. If the distinguished research scientist emeritus has learned one thing over these many years, it is that some things are worth the wait.
“All it takes is perseverance and a belief in what the science will deliver,” Valero says from an Orlando hotel room, after yet another launch attempt scrubbed—this time two minutes prior to ignition due to a problem with a radar tracking device. “That is the beauty of truth,” he adds. “In the long term, it will succeed.”
On February 11, 2015, with that long-term so close to coming to an end, another launch day arrives and this time, conditions are ideal. With so many thrilled spectators in attendance, his grandchildren among them, Valero has only to wait a few seconds more, as the countdown begins.
In 1998, Valero was a Scripps physicist already renowned for his work on clouds, the effects of aerosols on our climate and a wide range of other atmospheric research topics. He had just submitted a successful proposal to develop instruments for a satellite originally named Triana, after Rodrigo de Triana, the member of Christopher Columbus’ crew first to see the Americas.
Positioned between Earth and the sun, the new satellite would monitor the infrared radiation emitted by Earth as well as measure the solar energy it reflects. Such observations would prove essential to determine Earth’s energy budget, the fundamental driver of climate conditions. The project was widely supported at first; in early 1998, Vice President Al Gore suggested to NASA that the satellite’s ability to observe the entire sunlit side of the planet would be both educational and inspirational for younger generations.
Valero was principal investigator for the mission, later renamed the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) in 2003. His team, in partnership with Lockheed Martin, built a sophisticated telescope/spectra-radiometer known as the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera to determine the exact components of the atmosphere that contribute to the absorption, reflection and emission of radiation. The team also designed an instrument called the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Advanced Radiometer, or NISTAR, built and calibrated at NIST to measure solar and infrared planetary radiation.
By 2001, the satellite and its instruments had been built, tested and calibrated. Though many reviews validated the importance of its scientific objectives, party politics dried up funding for the program, and a lack of available spacecraft to deliver it to its destination led to DSCOVR being mothballed for eight years in a NASA storage facility. Only in 2006 was DSCOVR revived, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Air Force were reminded of its existence. The two agencies were interested in launching a satellite that could provide solar monitoring, a unique capability that just happened to already be included in DSCOVR as originally planned and built.
Considering the long journey it took to get to the launchpad, the 112 days DSCOVR will travel to its destination in space is a drop in the bucket. Yet that particular destination is exactly the reason why the mission is so monumental. DSCOVR will reach a distance of 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) away from Earth, a location known as Lagrange-1, where the orbital angular velocities of the Earth and sun essentially balance each other out. Consider it a “sweet spot” where the satellite will be the first to maintain a steady view of the Earth, providing a constant view of the entire sunlit portion of our planet as it rotates on its axis. From that vantage point, the satellite will determine how Earth processes the solar energy that drives the planet’s climate and makes it habitable.
The unique position will also allow the satellite to serve as a space weather installation, with the capability to observe solar flares, solar wind and magnetic field variations that occur during solar activity. Given that these phenomena can disrupt a wide variety of processes on Earth—from satellite communications to electrical distribution systems—having advance warning of these effects is essential to preserve the integrity of nearly every element of our public infrastructure, from power grids to telecommunications, aviation and GPS.
The instruments that Valero and his team developed will provide two complementary views of our planet at the same time. One of the instruments will see the entire planet all at once and measure total radiation output. The other instrument will likewise see the entire planet, yet divide its scope into 4 million pixels, with a resolution of about 9–12 miles. The two instruments together “will see the figurative forest and individual trees at the same time. Both are necessary as each instrument serves as a validator of the data provided by the other, and by other low-earth orbit systems,” says Valero.
DSCOVR was ahead of its time. And still is.
“DSCOVR was ahead of its time and still is,” says Charles Kennel, who was director of Scripps when the institution’s involvement with the project first began. “Even 17 years on, it provides a unique capability to study the Earth’s radiation balance, the source of all climate change.”
The satellite will also collect other climate system data on atmospheric dynamics, cloud physics and aerosols, one of Valero’s specialties. DSCOVR’s observations will integrate as well with data from other satellites, in particular NASA’s Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System, and is expected to contribute to the solution of longstanding questions about how much solar energy the planet absorbs and how much is radiated back to space. The answer has crucial implications—the delicate balance between energy absorbed and energy radiated is effectively the difference between global warming and cooling.
“Understanding the whole issue of Earth’s radiative balance is going to give us additional information to understand the issues driving the evolution of the planet—including life itself,” says Valero.
“DSCOVR is a story of a man and an idea,” says Kennel, “of Francisco Valero, who never lost sight of a grand scientific vision and never gave up.”
That determination has ultimately led him here, to the launchpad in Florida where he is seconds away from entering the next stage of his saga with the satellite. While still a professor emeritus at Scripps, Valero has joined the DSCOVR research team at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, where he will serve as a senior adviser and science planner for the mission.
A long journey, yet for Valero, one that was well worth it.
“It was worth expending the tremendous effort, and all of this has been possible thanks to the support of Scripps and UC San Diego, which put up with me for so long,” he says. “A mission that I have imagined for so long has finally become a real one.”