NOAA satellite sends back view of planet Earth

The Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera, or EPIC, instrument aboard NOAA's Deep Space Climate Observatory captured this image of Earth on July 6. Credit: NASA
NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera, or EPIC, instrument aboard NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory captured this image of Earth on July 6, showing North and South America. Credit: NASA

Fulfilling an idea dreamed up by former Vice President Al Gore more than 17 years ago, NASA has released the first in a daily series of Earth snapshots from a newly-launched spacecraft stationed a million miles away.

The view is the first of thousands of pictures expected to come down from the $340 million Deep Space Climate Observatory over the next few years. Daily images are expected to begin piping down from the satellite, known as DSCOVR, some time in September.

The Earth snapshots will be posted on a NASA website within 12 to 36 hours of arriving on the ground, according to the space agency. The first image released was taken July 6 and released Monday by the White House, in conjunction with the 46th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

The Apollo astronauts took the first famous “blue marble” photos of Earth.

DSCOVR launched from Cape Canaveral on Feb. 11 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. NASA officials said then that the observatory’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera, or EPIC, instrument would capture six Earth images per day.

The spacecraft, about the size of a small car, reached its observing station at the L1 Lagrange point a million miles from Earth on June 7. Engineers are now commissioning the satellite’s instruments before declaring it fully operational.

From its distant vantage point, DSCOVR will have uninterrupted views of the sunlit hemisphere of Earth as the planet rotates through day-night cycles.

Gore envisioned a satellite beaming down live views of Earth for broadcast on the Internet. DSCOVR will not reach that goal, but Gore touted the project’s importance in a briefing to reporters before the February launch.

“The constant ability to see the Earth — whole — fully sunlit every single day, the opportunity for every man, woman and child who lives on the Earth to see — if they wish — their own home in the context of the whole, can add to our way of thinking about our relationship to the Earth and, of course, the Earth’s ecosystem,” Gore said.

“Mobilizing the general public will to put pressure on political and governmental leaders in every nation to take action to save the future of human civilization is one of the principal missions here,” he said in a statement to reporters.

The project went through a series of starts and stops after Gore’s announcement of the idea during a speech at MIT in March 1998. Work on the satellite, then named Triana after a sailor on Columbus’s journey to the Americas, stopped in late 2001, and NASA formally canceled the mission in 2005.

NOAA paid for the spacecraft to be brought out of storage in November 2008, eyeing its use as an early warning observatory for geomagnetic storms that could disrupt communications, air travel, electrical grids and satellite operations.

The U.S. Air Force signed on to pay for the satellite — then renamed DSCOVR — to be launched on a Falcon 9 rocket, and NASA funded refurbishment and operations of the craft’s Earth observation instruments, which include the EPIC camera and a radiometer designed to measure how much of the sun’s energy is absorbed and reflected from Earth.

The EPIC camera, originally developed in the late 1990s for the Triana mission, takes imagery in 10 spectral channels from the ultraviolet to the near-infrared. Three of the frames — in the red, green and blue channels — were combined to create the natural color image released Monday.

DSCOVR’s main purpose is detecting fluctuations in the solar wind streaming from the sun toward the Earth. Responsibility for that aspect of the mission falls under NOAA’s charter.

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