Forty-six years after the first humans set foot on the Moon, a NASA camera has provided us with one “EPIC” view of Earth from a vantage point four times farther out than the Moon. From its perch at the Lagrange point 1 (L1) – a gravitationally stable point 1.5 million kilometers (930,000 miles) from Earth – the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) has returned its first view of the entire sunlit side of Earth.
“This first DSCOVR image of our planet demonstrates the unique and important benefits of Earth observation from space,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. “As a former astronaut who’s been privileged to view the Earth from orbit, I want everyone to be able to see and appreciate our planet as an integrated, interacting system. DSCOVR’s observations of Earth, as well as its measurements and early warnings of space weather events caused by the Sun, will help every person to monitor the ever-changing Earth, and to understand how our planet fits into its neighborhood in the Solar System.”
DSCOVR – a joint project between NASA, NOAA, and the U.S. Air Force – launched in February and took just over 100 days to reach its parking spot at the L1 point. Acting as a "tsunami buoy" in space, it’s the latest tool in our defense against severe space weather, providing advance warning for impending geomagnetic storms. Solar flares routinely erupt from the Sun and have the potential to produce powerful geomagnetic storms. We see the effects from these storms most often in the form of dazzling light shows known as the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis. However, geomagnetic storms can cause quite a bit of damage as they have the potential to flood power grids with additional electric current, possibly blowing transformers and even crippling entire power grids. Communication systems such as GPS and cell phones are also susceptible to these storms.
In addition to monitoring and protecting against space weather, DSCOVR will help us learn more about the Earth. Fitted with a special camera, the satellite will take images of our planet from an unprecedented distance and measure the Earth’s total energy budget, providing a more accurate picture on climate change.
NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera, or EPIC for short, produces pictures by combining multiple images taken in different wavelengths – and the result is quite stunning. The camera still needs to be calibrated to help remove atmospheric effects. Once the team can eliminate these effects and begin regular data collection, images of the Earth will be taken daily and posted to a dedicated public website.
“The high quality of the EPIC images exceeded all of our expectations in resolution,” said Adam Szabo, DSCOVR project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The images clearly show desert sand structures, river systems and complex cloud patterns. There will be a huge wealth of new data for scientists to explore.”
The photos from EPIC will help researchers in the study of atmospheric aerosols, which are tiny particles in the air. Aerosols come in many varieties, both natural and artificial – including dust and pollutants – and are known factors for making allergies and asthma worse. Calibration will continue over the next few weeks and regular data collection is expected by September 2015.
Image Credit: NASA / DSCOVR