Al Gore Weighs In on a Long-Delayed Earth Observatory Launch

This week, we will finally see the launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite. Long delayed, DSCOVR is an observational mission to the Lagrangian point 1, or “L1,” a unique point between the sun and Earth (approximately 1.6 million kilometers from Earth, toward the sun) where the gravitational pull of each sphere is equally balanced by the other. As it co-orbits the sun with Earth, DSCOVR will have a constant view of the Earth with the hemisphere facing the satellite fully illuminated by the sun as Earth rotates. From this unique vantage point, DSCOVR will capture and beam back to Earth a continuous stream of images of our planet similar to the historic image taken on December 7, 1972, during the Apollo 17 mission – which remains the only such image we have more than 42 years later. Not coincidentally, it is still the most published photograph in history.

More importantly from a scientific point of view, DSCOVR will provide critical new insights into our rapidly changing climate, and will give scientists—for the first time—the ability to accurately measure the energy balance of our planet. Earth’s “energy budget” can be calculated with a simple arithmetical formula: take the total amount of energy that enters the Earth system each day from the sun and subtract the total amount of infrared energy that escapes the Earth system each day back in space. The problem is that even though scientists can easily measure the former, they have not ever been able to accurately measure the latter—because the outgoing infrared radiation escapes from the full 360 degrees of the planet’s surface. But when DSCOVR begins sending that measurement each day from the L1 point, scientists will be able to more accurately calculate the total effect of heat-trapping gases on our planet’s climate.

Our current measurement of global warming is a combination of multiple sources that scientists often describe as “noisy.” The improved energy budget measured by DSCOVR’s instruments, in combination with existing data, will give humanity a comprehensive view of the crisis at hand. (A second satellite co-orbiting the sun on the Earth’s dark side was originally proposed along with DSCOVR, but 180 degrees is good enough to do the job, at almost half the expense of that larger mission.)

The DSCOVR mission was initially conceived in 1998 when, in cooperation with the National Academy of Sciences, I challenged NASA to build a satellite that could survey our planet and help us understand the climate crisis from a new perspective. Originally named Triana (after Rodrigo de Triana, the Spanish sailor who first spotted the New World from Christopher Columbus’s ship La Pinta), DSCOVR’s launch comes at a critical time for humanity.

Industry is most interested in what has been designated, in the years since the satellite was first built, as DSCOVR’s primary mission, administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: to provide an early-warning system for impending solar storms. Ejected from the sun at blistering speeds, these solar flares can cripple critical electronic infrastructure essential to our modern way of life. Because the size of these solar storms follows “power laws,” the larger they are, the less frequent they are. Moreover, it is less frequent still for one of larger flares to be aimed precisely at Earth. Nevertheless, it does happen, and when it does, these flares can cause costly damage to electric circuits, electricity transmission grids and other systems vulnerable to such storms. Many are relieved that DSCOVR will replace the aging and mostly incapacitated system that is presently providing some warning of such storms.

There are also many aging Earth-observing satellites in space that need to be replaced, enhanced and supplemented. The DSCOVR satellite will help to improve the usefulness of our satellite fleet that is in low Earth orbit by providing a common calibration reference point—which will enhance the synergy among many different orbiting instruments observing and measuring changes in the Earth system.

But along with these and other scientifically significant missions, DSCOVR will also have the ability to inspire new ways of thinking about the true nature of the human condition, by showing us new images everyday that give every person on Earth the ability to see his or her home city or village in the context of the planetary whole, reminding us of our obligation to take good care of what Buckminster Fuller described so long ago as “Spaceship Earth.”

More than 42 years ago, astronauts on_ Apollo 17_ captured a picture of Earth unlike any other in history. The Blue Marble image showed the side of our Earth fully illuminated by the sun while suspended in the vast emptiness of space. It was the first image to show the true, undistorted full face of our planet, its fragility and magnificence bound in one blue sphere.

DSCOVR offers us an opportunity to recapture that wonderment, excitement and curiosity that was first inspired by the Blue Marble. We will soon see fresh, beautiful new images of our planet every day. Indeed, DSCOVR stands as a testament to the same ideals that originally brought humanity to space: resiliency, ingenuity and the strength of the human spirit. But DSCOVR will also provide a stark reminder of our physical limits. This satellite and its instruments will give humanity a new vantage point from which to view the boundaries and vulnerability of Planet Earth.

We must not be deterred by our vulnerability; we must embrace it and allow it to propel us forward to chart a new course for human civilization. We can solve the climate crisis. We can create a sustainable and prosperous world, but we must act now.