A DeSmogBlog exclusive investigation into NASA's DSCOVR climate station

Somewhere in Maryland is a metal box containing a fully completed climate spacecraft that could save the world.

NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) cost over $100 million and was designed to measure the energy budget of our warming planet. Yet the spacecraft has remained in its box for the last five years and it looks like it is not going anywhere anytime soon.

NASA quietly cancelled the project altogether in January 2006 citing “competing priorities”.

What happened? How could the US government possibly justify killing DSCOVR given the importance of climate change and after over 90% of the project expenses had already been incurred? What role did petty partisan politics play in this? Did the oil lobby have any influence on this decision?

Over the next few months I am going to be digging into the history of DSCOVR, the reasons why it was cancelled, and why NASA refuses to release any internal documents on the decision to kill the mission.

But first, some background on why DSCOVR is so important and why it is not your average climate satellite.

In fact, DSCOVR is not a satellite at all. It was designed to be sent far beyond the orbit of Earth to a unique parking spot in space, four times as far away as the moon. This “L1 Lagrangian point” was to be DSCOVR’s home, a gravity-neutral point between our planet and the Sun. If a spacecraft is put there, it stays put, 1.5 million kilometers away tracking the exact orbit of our planet around the Sun.

From this unique vantage, the scientific instruments on DSCOVR would gaze back towards Earth, allowing us for the first time ever to measure the energy budget of the entire plant. This critical data would help calibrate climate models as well as measurements from other climate spacecraft that have collectively cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Earth’s temperature is a delicate balance between the amount of energy retained by the atmosphere and the amount being reflected back into space. This second number is called “albedo” and it is vitally important to scientists trying to develop reliable computer models on our changing climate. DSCOVR would provide vastly improved measurements of the Earth’s albedo because from L1, it would be able to continuously observe the entire sunlit disc of our planet.

Interestingly, a common complaint of climate change deniers has been that the satellite data used to develop climate models is unreliable. DSCOVR would go a long way to settling whatever honest debate remained about the reliability of those models.

Considering that these climate models are now driving enormous public policy decisions, one would think that DSCOVR would be a top priority. It certainly has been a priority of other governments. The French were so alarmed by the foot dragging by NASA they offered to send DSCOVR into space themselves at a greatly reduced cost. The Ukranian government even offered to launch DSCOVR for free aboard a Tsyklon IV rocket – the most reliable launch vehicle in the world.

The response from NASA? No thanks.

Something seems rotten in the state of Maryland.

Next posting: how this mission, originally inspired by Al Gore, may have become fatally mired in beltway politics.

Click here to donate to our research project and help find out who killed the DSCOVR project.

Note: the DeSmogBlog team welcomes writer and researcher Mitchell Anderson to the team. Over the next few months Mitchell will be writing an investigative series on the US administration's mothballing of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR).



NASA is on a tight budget and I suspect that is why the “Goresat” launch has been cancelled (with a pinch of partisan politics thrown in). Keeping the shuttle running smoothly is costing more then expected, and the now on again mission in September 2008 to service the Hubble telescope will cost nearly a billion dollars, so NASA has had to juggle it’s priorities.

“Goresat” may well find funding in the future to be launched, particularly if the Dems take the White House in 2008. Whether it is a critical project and whether it should take precedence over other missions is a subject of debate.

I read a quote from someone inside NASA calling the degradation of their Earth facing satellite system an engineered train wreck. The assertion was made that NASA will soon face a critical shortage of satellite eyes observing things such as the reduction of glaciers and the reduction of lakes caused by global warming.

I might even question the sincerity of NASA in sending a manned mission to Mars, given the relatively paltry funds set aside for it. They will certainly send more manned missions to the Moon, because they are basically using rehashed technology from the Apollo program. But sending a mission to Mars will be orders of magnitude more difficult, likely requiring a sizable portion of the American GDP. Think about what is necessary: Food and water for a year+ in space, reliable landing/propulsion systems to land and take off from the Martian surface, the ability to extract water from the martian soil?, shielding systems to protect the astronauts from solar radiation, rocket systems to propel this huge ship, including its fuel to Mars and back to the Earth. I don’t see the signs that the US is willing to commit the necessary resources.

Spent already, all the thing needs is some new rocket fuel and a shot up. It has also been sitting now for the better part of 5 years – NASA could have found the money if it had the green light.

And of course as we report this, the “Goresat” garbage will come up – “oh, quick if Gore leads any project it must be a big hoax and we must use it as a means of discrediting the entire climate science community.” 

Yeah, it would be nice if Paul S and others would remember that they are talking with grownups and lose the dumb partisan nicknames.

Budgeting for a big agency like NASA is complex. They don’t just tack on a mission willy nilly Kevin. Launching a rocket is expensive, and operating a satellite for many years costs bucks too. Like I said, NASA is spending more on the shuttle then they planned, possibly DSCVR is simply a victim of cost constraints.

Funny how the project that could do immeasurable damage to any number of well-connected industries is the one they suddenly have no money for…

A few hundred million dollars, a billion dollars [or whatever it costs] to launch DSCOVR and cover the associated operating expenditure, or rendering the planet uninhabitable for multicellular life for a few hundred thousand years?
Clearly, DSCOVR won’t solve man-made GW, but it’s information would give an important boost to the climate science and could reduce some of the uncertainties.

Oh! But I forgot! GW is all a hoax! And if we would just stop looking for it, GW will just go away!
Now I understand, it’s the scientists who are causing GW!

So President Bush is saving the world from GW by stopping DSCOVR! Now I understand!

How stupid can those scientists get?

Or is it that the scientists aren’t really stupid, and the world’s stupidity is all stored in the White House?
Maybe, Bush has discovered a new game, it’s called planetary Russian Roulette, except when it goes wrong, everyone dies!

Bush’s favourite music is Tom Lehrer’s “We will all go together when we go”

Sick em Mitchell! Makes me wonder if the so called y2k bug that supposidley caused an error in earths temperature readings wasnt just more this admins campaign of lies and disinformation.

If you can discover how much it will cost to prep and lift the satellite, and how much to operating and service it over its lifetime; if these cost estimates are reasonable it may be possible to convince another space agency to take over the mission, now that NASA is no longer tasked with the goal of “protecting the home planet”.

The French Space Agency offered to launch it, don’t know if they offered to maintain it. I also thin there might be “national security” and proprietary issues around giving US space equipment to another country – just speculating though, hopefully we’ll uncover more on that aspect in the coming while. 

Well, that would be your natural demographic, I suppose.

Now all you need is Daily Kos, Democratic Underground, Moveon.org, Wardchurchill.net, and Indymedia.org.

Does Michael Moore still have a web site?

Fight the power!

I guess it is our ‘natural demographic’  – you don’t think Michelle Malkin will pick us up??

For your information, Rob, not all those concerned about AGW are “rabid leftists”. I am certainly not included in that group. I rarely, if ever visit “Daily Kos”, MoveOn.org, and Indymedia.org, I have never heard of Democratic Underground, and I hate Ward Churchill’s guts.

Michael Moore has done some good by bringing important issues to the public’s attention, but he does it in such a way that he does not tell the whole truth (e.g. one cannot get a gun at a bank after opening an account, but gets a coupon for a gun from the bank that they can redeem at a firearms dealer) and he is very abrasive and confrontational about everything rather than trying to build a consensus or at least a large proportion of people who will try to better the US and the world as a whole.

Rob, have you also heard of the National Association of Evangelicals (i.e. a group on the “Religious Right”)? They have endorsed a position of “Creation Care”, which is described here:


Also, some “Neo-Conservatives” have heard the call for environmental sustainability. James Woolsey, a national security hawk, is one of them:


So, Rob, now you can stop painting us all with the “extreme left” brush.

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So the thing already cost over $100 Million? So that’s what, like, less than the cost of half a day for the war in Iraq? If we can’t afford that, it’s not budget, it’s POLITICS.

Brilliant work Mitchell Anderson, welcome to DeSmog. You are certainly onto something here. The negative nellies here don’t seem to have read it through - its affordable enough [and if not, the French, Ukraine would ante up]. Science is a threat to the Oily elites.

But what possible use is this expensive NASA project?
After all, “The science is settled (tm)”? Right?

Never underestimate scientists desire to study things. An example would be the science is definitely settled that mine tailings are bad (simplistic but suitable) for the environment (at least 20+ years of such a consensus), including both water and landscape contamination (heavy metals and acidity). I promise you I could get research funding to investigate specific mine waste sites in the degree of environmental contamination, local impacts, site risk assessment and potential reclamation activities. There is never an end to greater scientific pursuit and understanding of the climate phenomena, or any other for that matter regardless of field.

Thanks for demonstrating your ingnorance of the science Rob. While the fact that anthropogenic climate change exists is definitely settled, there remains much work to be done to understand how fast it is happening, and what the various mechanisms and feedback processes are.
And had you actually read this article, you would have understood that the data to be provided by DSCOVR would be very valuable to better calibrate the models. This is important in order to know if we will reach a crtitical point in 10 years or 100 years. I’m sure even you can understand the importance of this data for policy making.

“Thanks for demonstrating your ingnorance of the science Rob.”

So you’re a scientist? (I know that’s an ignorant question, but then, I’m ignorant.)

“the fact that anthropogenic climate change exists is definitely settled”

Ah, so there’s conclusive proof of this? I must have missed it.

“there remains much work to be done to understand how fast it is happening, and what the various mechanisms and feedback processes are.”

Now I think I’m beginning to get it. So, although “the science is settled”, it’s just not understood. Sort of like the Q-Ray Ionizing Bracelet, advertised on TV?

Where do I send my cheque?

“the data to be provided by DSCOVR would be very valuable to better calibrate the models.”

Okay, so even though “the science is settled”, the models on which it is based aren’t calibrated very well?

“This is important in order to know if we will reach a crtitical point in 10 years or 100 years.”

Right. So this “critical point” could be in 10 years, or it could be in 100 years. Could it also be in 500 years, or … never? That doesn’t seem very “settled”.

“I’m sure even you can understand the importance of this data for policy making.”

Ouch! Your whithering condescencion has really put me in my place. But at least you admit that there is insufficient data to make any political policies based on this “settled science”.

Tell you what, why don’t you get back to us in 10 years (or 100 years), if you’ve actually got it sorted out by then? In the meantime, I’m willing to take my chances.

I’d rather not take my chances, Rob.

“Tell you what, why don’t you get back to us in 10 years (or 100 years), if you’ve actually got it sorted out by then? In the meantime, I’m willing to take my chances.”

I’ve just lived through my first (and second) experience of 46C on my Athens GR shade thermometre – without AC, I might add – spent a week of horrified observation of record-breaking wildfires raging across drought-parched Greek forests, and read of 50-yr floods in my home state of Ohio.

Something’s going on, and the preponderance of climate science, even if details aren’t settled, points to man-made pollution as a significant part of the cause.

My Ohio forebears put up produce in the summer, because they thought it might not grow in the winter. They piled up cord wood on the hunch it might get cold. And they drove their cars at ACD on the outside chance the idiot in front of them might slam on his breaks. (They didn’t know they might be contributing to climate change, or they probably would have kept their horses.)

So, while I appreciate your comments that not all climate concern is from the left, I have to disagree with your willingness to risk catastrophic change. If we’ve got the technology (DSCOVR etc) to better understand what’s going on, why not use it?

And if we discover in its use that the tipping point is 100 yrs away, would it be all that bad to do something about it NOW?

I’ve just lived through my first (and second) experience of 46C on my Athens GR shade thermometre – without AC, I might add – spent a week of horrified observation of record-breaking wildfires raging across drought-parched Greek forests, and read of 50-yr floods in my home state of Ohio.

And I’ve been experiencing the one of the mildest summers in Lisbon/Portugal that I can remember and with very few forest fires.

Temperatures only surpassed 33C for like 3 days and we usually get many fires and this year have had very few comparatively.

Local “evidence” like this is of no relevance at all and shows a dishonest attempt to convince readers by targeting the “heart” instead of targeting the “head”.

And this past Winter was mild with enough rain (and no floods).

“I’ve just lived through my first (and second) experience of 46C on my Athens GR shade thermometre”

I submit to you that your trusty “thermometre”[sic] is slightly bust-icated. I tell ya, you pay $1.49 at the dime store, and you expect a precision instrument, dammit!

According to weatherchannel.com, the highest temperature recorded for this past August in Athens, GA was 39 deg C – and that’s nowhere near the historic record high.

Rob, the original Athens is in Greece. You know, high temperatures, lots of fires killing people there lately?

Go back to your local politics, Rob, you’re out of your league here.

“I’ve just lived through my first (and second) experience of 46C on my Athens GR shade thermometre”

I submit to you that your trusty “thermometre”[sic] is slightly bust-icated. I tell ya, you pay $1.49 at the dime store, and you expect a precision instrument, dammit!

According to weatherchannel.com, the highest temperature recorded for this past August in Athens, GREECE was 39 deg C – and that’s nowhere near the historic record high.

Happy now, VJ?

“Go back to your local politics, Rob, you’re out of your league here.”

Sorry, you were saying … ?

You failed to provide a link. No evidence for your claim.

August 24, 2007:

…A total of 170 fires broke out on Thursday and Friday alone as winds picked up after a three-day heatwave that saw temperatures rise to 41 Celsius (106 F)…

(space added to get rid of sidescroll)

July 26, 2007:

…Tinderbox conditions triggered by temperatures that yesterday hit 45C (113F) in the shade in Athens - the hottest day of the year in the capital - were the spark for most of the blazes, according to authorities…

…Temperatures in June, when the mercury hit 46C, were the highest in the past century, with scientists believing they are evidence of the extent of climate change in the eastern Mediterranean…


Not to mention that it’s a hell of a lot hotter in the middle of a fire. Aren’t you one of those denialists fussing over whether thermometers are close to barbecues or whatever? You think having fires burning all over might not make the place a little hotter?

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Whoever said ALL the science is settled?? We sure didn’t. Are you just making that up to fir your argument??

There’s a lot of unsettled climate science – however, there is overwhelming agreement based on scientific research  that human activity in the form of burning fossil fuel is a major cause of the rapid climate change we are seeing.

“Whoever said ALL the science is settled?? We sure didn’t.”

If you didn’t, then please explain the following statement I found prominently displayed on this site.

The Science is Clear
The scientific evidence is clear, global warming is happening, our continued burning of fossil fuels (i.e. oil, gas and coal) is to blame and we should be very concerned about the consequences.

The Science is Clear
The scientific evidence is clear, all living organisms are made up of cells and all living cells contain DNA.

When taking such statements into account, it does not mean that further scientific investigation into cellular biology should cease. Not all the science behind cellular biology, biochemistry, and genetics is settled, but the above statement is still scientifically correct.

Of importance is whether a vehicle other than a Shuttle Orbiter can lift the Deep Space Climate Observatory. Any national proprietary prestige and “trade secret” isues might be avoided if another nation were merely to donate the mission launch and two year operating cost cash (assuming it is a low to mid 8-figure cost). Is a Shuttle mission necessary to launch DSCOVER?

This is a really good point. Or what if the EU put it up as a collective body – cost member nations next to nothing. 

The evidence is overwhelming, if Bush closes his eyes, puts his fingers in his ears and stamps his feet, that NASTY global warming stuff will just go away.

That’s why he’s turned-off the funding for DSCOVR! He’s figured that if those HORRID scientists would only stop talking about GW, then he could go back to play with the fairies at the bottom of the garden.
Shhh! He’s back in his cot having a sleep!

You sound like an idiot. How many Americans do you think are willing to give up their hog swilling ways, stop driving gas guzzling SUVs and reduce their smogging energy consumption. We don’t need a satellite to tell us that we, Americans, and the rest of the world’s developed countries as well, are just a bunch of pigs and we’re not going to stop our earth-destroying habits until it’s “do or die”. As long as the U.S. is on the top of the heap, its citizens will continue on their selfish “me, me, me, me, gimme, gimme, gimme”, destructive path. Stop using every disaster on the planet to blame George Bush. We’re all to blame.

The precise reason why the Bush menace and his supporters are to blame for degrading inconvenient science and environmental protection. Is that the Bush Administration is directly responsible for doing what Exxon and other fossil-fuel and big industry interests tell them.

I do not believe for one moment that all Americans are stupid & selfish, but I’m quite prepared to believe that a significant proportion of the human species is. I don’t live in the USA, but often I see stupid, selfish people.

Bush is entirely responsible for his Administration’s political interference with science. Even though I know of no direct evidence for interference in the case of DSCOVR, there is ample evidence for the Bush administration interfering with science deemed inconvenient, such as climate, other environmental and stem cell research. There is a distinct pattern of consulting the polluting industry responsible about what changes they require, relaxing antipollution controls, suppression and distortion of scientific research and evidence.

Internal memorandums circulated in the Alaskan division of the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service appear to require government biologists or other employees traveling in countries around the Arctic not to discuss climate change, polar bears or sea ice if they are not designated to do so.
Published: March 8, 2007

USGS scientists worry about being muzzled
‘Policy-sensitive’ research must be screened; officials discount concerns
Dec. 13, 2006

Union of Concerned Scientists on Scientific Integrity & Political Interference

I’m convinced that the American public are confused about the climate change science, evidence and dangers. Once they understand the truth, many of them would probably moderate or stop their polluting ways as best they could, however the reason it continues is in no small part due the deceptions and lies of the Exxon infiltrated Bush Administration.
Clearly, those who were intent on living an energy intensive lifestyle would need to be compelled to limit their energy consumption. New legislation would need to be introduced, outlawing inefficient technologies and imposing swingeing high efficiency & low energy requirements. This would in-turn produce a market for low energy devices and drive a concerted effort to research and develop advanced low energy technologies, which could be exported to the rest of the world. Turning a seeming disadvantage into a great benefit for the US, its people and economy and ultimately the world.
Clearly any change is difficult, but the transition to a low energy lifestyle is inevitable, but it will be difficult. If the transition is forced by climate change, it will most probably be a great deal more traumatic for everyone and inevitably fatal for a great many.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that climate change may already be causing over 150,000 deaths per year and these risks are expected to increase substantially in the future [2,3].
End quote

Testimony of James E. Hansen
Quote 1 Muzzling the scientists
The effect of the filtering of climate change science during the current Administration has
been to make the reality of climate change less certain than the facts indicate and to reduce concern about the relation of climate change to human-made greenhouse gas emissions. For example, one of my staff members submitted a story based on his paper that found the ocean was less effective at removing human-made CO2 than had previously been estimated. Public Affairs decided that this story should not be provided to the media. Another staff member had to attend a ‘practice’ press conference, in which he was asked whether anything could be done to stem accelerating loss of sea ice. When he suggested “we could reduce emissions of greenhouse gases” he was told sternly “that’s unacceptable! ”, with the explanation that scientists are not allowed to say anything that relates to policy
End quote 1

Quote 2 Change the Mission Statement
One way to avoid bad news: stop the measurements! Only hitch: the first line of the
NASA mission is “to understand and protect our home planet.” Maybe that can be changed to “…protect special interests’ backside.” I should say that the mission statement used to read “to understand and protect our home planet”. That part has been deleted—a shocking loss to me, as I had been using that phrase to justify speaking out about the dangers of global warming. The quoted mission statement had been constructed in 2001 and 2002 via an inclusive procedure involving representatives from the NASA Centers and e-mail interactions with NASA employees. In contrast, elimination of the “home planet” phrase occurred with no fanfare in a spending report delivered to Congress in February 2006, the same report that retroactively slashed the Earth Science research budget. In July 2006 I asked dozens of NASA employees and management people (including my boss) if they were aware of the change. Not one of them was. Several expressed concern that such management changes by fiat would have a bad effect on organization morale.
End quote 2 http://oversight.house.gov/documents/20070319105800-43018.pdf