A Sun monitoring satellite for advanced warning against powerful solar storms capable of disrupting GPS systems and radio communications has been launched to space.
Designed to replace a 17 year old spacecraft, the satellite, the Deep Space Climate Observatory, dubbed DSCOVR, was lifted into orbit by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on Wednesday evening.
A joined project of Nasa, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Air Force, the $340m mission was originally proposed by former US Vice President Al Gore, though with a different purpose.
Gore envisioned the spacecraft, to be placed into solar orbit some 1.6 million km away from Earth, would gaze back at the planet, providing a constant view akin to the famous Apollo 17 "Blue Marble" picture.
Instead, the satellite will watch the Sun providing warning at least one hour ahead before any potentially disruptive solar flare reaches the space around the Earth.
Gore’s proposal, envisioning a name Triana for the spacecraft, was scrapped more than ten years ago with the already built spacecraft left in a storage depot before it was refurbished as a solar observatory.
Apart from monitoring solar activity, the satellite carries sensors for tracking volcanic plumes on Earth, measuring the ozone layer and monitoring droughts, floods and fires.
To salute the man who initiated it, the spacecraft will take pictures of the Earth every two hours to be posted on the Internet.
“It will give us a wonderful opportunity to see the beauty and fragility of our planet", said Gore who travelled the Florida to witness the take-off.
The launch was postponed since Monday due to bad weather in the area. SpaceX originally planned to use the flight as an opportunity to test its technology for controlled landing of the first rocket stage but was forced to abandon the idea as huge waves battered the landing platform in the ocean.
"Mega storm preventing droneship from remaining on station, so rocket will try to land on water," SpaceX chief Elon Musk tweeted shortly before lift-off, adding the chance of success was less than 1 per cent.
Musk later said the rocket landed in the ocean within 10 miles of the target - and "nicely vertical!" Its descent was slowed by a pair of engine firings, with steering by fins attached to the booster.
The mission represented the first launch of Falcon 9 on a deep space trajectory.