NOAA space weather sentinel joined with Falcon 9 rocket

The Deep Space Climate Observatory is pictured inside the Astrotech satellite processing facility in Titusville, Florida. One half of the Falcon 9 rocket's payload fairing is seen behind the spacecraft. Credit: NOAA
The Deep Space Climate Observatory is pictured inside the Astrotech satellite processing facility in Titusville, Florida. One half of the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload fairing is seen behind the spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

A new space weather observatory to be stationed a million miles from Earth has been enclosed inside the nose cone of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for liftoff Sunday from Cape Canaveral.

The Deep Space Climate Observatory was filled with maneuvering fuel, tested and verified ready for launch, then encapsulated inside the Falcon 9 launcher’s 5.2-meter (17.1-foot) diameter payload fairing at the Astrotech spacecraft processing facility near Kennedy Space Center.

The satellite rolled out of Astrotech on Saturday night for a short road trip to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 hangar at Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad. Once it arrived, the payload housing was tilted on its side and hooked up to the Falcon 9’s second stage.

Final testing is underway this week to ensure the refrigerator-sized spacecraft and the rocket work together. The booster should be rolled out of the hangar and erected on the launch pad this weekend.

The Falcon 9 rocket has completed a brief on-pad firing of its nine Merlin 1D first stage engines in a customary preflight test after a practice countdown.

Liftoff of the 22-story rocket is set for 6:10 p.m. EST (2310 GMT) Sunday, about two minutes after sunset on Florida’s Space Coast.

The Falcon 9’s 15th flight will send DSCOVR on a high-speed trajectory to escape the grip of Earth’s gravity.

DSCOVR is a joint project between NOAA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force. The satellite will be positioned at the L1 libration point a million miles away from Earth, where its instruments will monitor space weather and the solar wind for a planned five-year mission.


The Air Force arranged the DSCOVR mission’s liftoff with SpaceX, paying the California-based space transportation company $97 million under a launch services contract signed in December 2012.

NOAA is the overall manager of the DSCOVR program, with NASA assisting with satellite preparation and prelaunch processing.

The Air Force signed the DSCOVR launch order — plus a Falcon Heavy launch reserved for multiple defense-related experimental satellites — under the service’s Orbital/Suborbital Program 3 (OSP 3) contract, which allows contractors to compete to launch the military’s smaller spacecraft.

SpaceX and the Air Force expect to complete certification of the Falcon 9 rocket to launch more critical Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class (EELV-class) national security satellites later this year. The certification will allow SpaceX to compete directly against United Launch Alliance for the military’s most expensive communications, navigation and spy satellites.

ULA is not part of the OSP 3 contract, and the incumbent EELV contractor did not bid to launch the DSCOVR mission.

SpaceX plans a second try to recover the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage booster during Sunday’s launch. An untried rocket-assisted flyback maneuver on SpaceX’s last launch Jan. 10 guided the 14-story booster to a football field-sized barge in the Atlantic Ocean, but the company said the rocket’s stabilizing winglets ran out of hydraulic fluid on final descent to a vertical propulsive landing.

The booster crashed on the landing platform, but SpaceX recovered wreckage and returned the debris to port aboard the barge.

The Falcon 9 rocket with DSCOVR carries additional hydraulic fluid to avoid a recurrence of the problem.

Engineers will inspect the Falcon 9 booster if the flyback experiment works as designed on Sunday’s flight, determining what work is required to refurbish the rocket for another mission.

SpaceX hopes to make the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage reusable in the future in a bid to cut the cost of space launches.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.