NASA solar weather satellite in trouble

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DSCOVR, re-purposed by NASA from Al Gore’s Triana Earth-observing satellite to instead monitor solar storm activity, is having serious technical problems.

A US space-weather satellite that is supposed to alert Earth to incoming solar storms has temporarily dropped offline five times in the year since it became operational. Its onboard computer may be experiencing hiccups caused unexpectedly by galactic cosmic rays.

The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) went out of action most recently on 11 October. In each case, it unexpectedly entered a ‘safe hold’ in which scientific data stopped flowing and engineers had to scramble to try to recover the spacecraft. In total, DSCOVR’s space-weather forecasting instruments have been offline for more than 42 hours since 28 October 2015, when the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) took the spacecraft over from NASA, which built and launched it. Each outage lasts for only a few hours, and the total downtime amounts to 0.48% of its time in space — well below NOAA’s requirement that the spacecraft operate at least 96% of the time.

They think the outages are being caused by cosmic rays. Because DSCOVR was initially not designed to do the work it is now doing, its problems with cosmic rays are likely related to this change in its goals. Had the money that was used on Gore’s pet project (something that NASA did not really need) been instead used to build DSCOVR (something that NASA did need), we might not be having these problems now.

So that no one misunderstands me, I am not saying that politicians shouldn’t be involved in deciding what missions NASA flies. What I am saying is that politicians should not impose their petty demands on the agency, but use their brains to help the agency do the best job it can, with the resources available. Gore deserves criticism here because he forced NASA to divert needed resources away from necessary projects to build a satellite that NASA didn’t need. The agency eventually did the best it could to turn that lemon into lemonade, but Gore’s interference means they are using lemonade for something that really required something better.


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