DSCOVR Grounded by Office Politics?

Wed, 2007-12-05 10:55Mitchell Anderson
Mitchell Anderson's picture

DSCOVR Grounded by Office Politics?

NASA’s resistance to launching the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is certainly puzzling.
They spent $100 million on the spacecraft. It’s finished.
Two other countries and another US government agency have offered to launch it at no cost to NASA.
Yet it still remains in a box.
Maybe NASA is simply cash-strapped because they have been forced to spend billions on pet political projects like the International Space Station or Bush’s manned mission to Mars.
Or maybe the Whitehouse and their oil industry backers didn’t want the climate “debate” resolved just yet.
But perhaps the real reason that DSCOVR remains Earth-bound is something much more mundane than that: office politics.
NASA, like any large institution, has some serious inertia around changing the way things are done. The important challenge of calculating the energy budget of the planet is a good example.
After spending literally billions of dollars on Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, NASA scientists still cannot resolve a significant discrepancy in the “reflected flux” of our planet.
Simply put, the amount of energy retained by Earth is the amount of energy received from the Sun, minus the amount radiated back into space in the infrared spectrum.
The first factor – the amount received from Sun - is the total energy hitting the Earth minus the amount reflected back by clouds, ice and other shiny surfaces. This measurement of “shininess” is called albedo.
Without knowing the ever-changing albedo, it is impossible to have a precise idea of how much the planet is warming up, or what is causing it. It is like trying to figure out how many people have come into a nightclub with out counting them at the door.
Therein lies the internal embarrassment for NASA. Scientists are supposed to have the answers – especially around hot button issues like climate change. Yet a paper published last year in the prestigious journal Nature demonstrated that NASA still had a glaring discrepancy in the planet’s energy balance of 4-6 watts per square metre – that is roughly two to three times the effect of atmospheric CO2.
The Low Earth Orbit researchers have had a pretty good kick at the can but they still can’t make the numbers add up. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Such “weird” phenomena are often the very things that precede scientific breakthroughs.
That’s why DSCOVR is so important. It would be observing our planet at the same time as existing LEO satellites – but from a distance of 1.5 million kilomteres away. This new perspective might help resolve this interesting problem.
DSCOVR would also compliment and help calibrate existing satellite measurements.
Many of these LEO satellites cost billions and have a limited lifespan. Some of satellites in A-Train array may be lost by 2009 – adding to the urgency of getting DSCOVR launched so it can do coincident measurements of the Earth before these expensive satellites fall from the sky.
More than that, DSCOVR would be able to simultaneously monitor the energy output of the Sun while measuring temperature changes on Earth. This would almost immediately lay to rest the argument often trotted out by climate change deniers that any warming of the planet is due to fluctuations in the Sun.
Here’s the rub: if DSCOVR ever made it to L1 and did a better job at measuring the temperature of our planet, it might threaten the funding or reputations of well-established scientists that have hitched their academic wagon to low Earth orbit observations.
Could it be that the satellite that could save the world remains Earth-bound due to nothing more than academic jealously?
As they say, “Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice.”
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