As reported by the Orlando Sentinel: SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket blasted off Wednesday into a clear sky colored by a setting sun, sending a satellite into space to monitor solar storms that can wreak havoc on Earth's power and communication systems.
The 6:03 p.m. launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station came on SpaceX's third try this week, and this time Florida provided a postcard-quality environment for launch. As the rocket rose, the sunset transformed the horizon backdrop into a stripe of rainbow pastels, from pink through blue, for it to pass through.
"The Falcon takes flight, propelling the Deep Space Climate Observatory on a million-mile journey to protect our planet Earth," declared NASA commentator Michael Curie.
However, out to sea, the weather did not cooperate. Because of heavy seas in the Atlantic Ocean, SpaceX canceled its plan to try to land the used first stage of the rocket on an unmanned barge and instead soft-landed it in the water, just a dozen yards from its target.
A little more than a half-hour after launch, the rocket carried the DSCOVR satellite to its first parking point about 125 miles into space.
"Everything has gone just as planned," Currie said after the satellite reached its orbit.
During nearly four months, NASA intends to slowly move the satellite much farther, eventually reaching a spot almost a million miles from Earth, or roughly four times the distance to the moon.
At that point, the gravitational forces of the sun and Earth are in equilibrium, allowing the satellite to follow the Earth around the sun while keeping a constant watch on both the sun and the Earth's sunny side.
There, the refrigerator-sized satellite will give NASA, the Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data about events such as geomagnetic storms caused by changes in solar wind. The goal is to give scientists more detailed understanding to provide regional warnings about how the storms might affect power and communication systems.
The satellite was first built for a previous mission and repurposed by NOAA. Initially built in 1998, it was intended to observe Earth only, in a program proposed by then-Vice President Al Gore to monitor global warming.
The original program was scrapped by President George W. Bush. A few years ago NOAA convinced NASA to bring the satellite out of storage and reconfigured it as a solar-storm monitor.
Nonetheless, it retains its ability to monitor Earth's climate, detailing ozone and aerosol amounts, cloud height, vegetation and ultraviolet reflection by the atmosphere.
Gore, who attended the launch, sent a note to NASA after the satellite was deployed, saying it will "further our understanding of Earth and enable citizens and scientists alike to better understand the reality of climate crisis and envision its solutions."
DSCOVR will be replacing a NOAA satellite in roughly the same spot in space called the Advanced Composition Explorer, which was prone to signal disruptions from the very solar storms it was deployed to cover.
Consequently, the ACE satellite provides some data on major storms, but not enough, said Douglas Biesecker, NOAA DSCOVR project scientist.
"DSCOVR will not have that problem," Biesecker said. "It will be more robust."
SpaceX was unable to land its rocket, which was supposed to be an unofficial highlight for the mission. SpaceX hopes to be able to soft-land rockets to reuse them. A first attempt in January failed.
"The drone ship was designed to operate in all but the most extreme weather. We are experiencing just such weather in the Atlantic with waves reaching up to three stories in height crashing over the decks," said a news release by SpaceX.
Later SpaceX founder Elon Musk posted on Twitter, "Rocket soft landed in the ocean within 10m of target & nicely vertical! High probability of good droneship landing in non-stormy weather."
He also tweeted that the drone barge would be redesigned to better handle bad weather.
SpaceX got the launch off at its last opportunity, due to the position of the moon. Wednesday's was the company's third attempt in four days.
Tuesday's launch was scrubbed because winds blew at 100 knots at an altitude of 25,000 feet pretty much all day. SpaceX didn't bother to try Monday, when it rained almost all day. On Sunday, a radar glitch scrubbed the launch with less than three minutes left in the countdown.