This Is The First Image From NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory

Illustration for article titled This Is The First Image From NASAs Deep Space Climate Observatory

The Deep Space Climate Observatory (also cleverly known as DSCOVR) is a spacecraft that sits a million miles away from Earth, hovering between the Sun and our planet. Its mission: to monitor space weather, and send us an endless stream of interplanetary selfies. This is its first.

DSCOVR is hovering at a place known as Lagrange point 1. Lagrange points are the work of Joseph-Louis Lagrange, who realized that in any two-body planetary system, there are points of equilibrium, where an object can orbit with the same position between the two bodies. The points aren’t perfectly stable, but with some minor thrusting, a spacecraft can keep on station.

Illustration for article titled This Is The First Image From NASAs Deep Space Climate Observatory

Lagrange points in the Earth-Sun system. Image credit: Andrew Moise/Creative Commons

L1, where DSCOVR is hanging out, is on a line between the Earth and Sun, about a million miles from Earth. That means DSCOVR will always be looking at the sunny side of the Earth, enabling it to take images on a variety of wavelengths every day. As well as looking damn pretty, these images can also help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast solar winds, a critical component of space weather.

As Buzz Aldrin also pointed out in a nostalgic blog post, DSCOVR is also an important test piece for the future (although it’s worth noting that other spacecraft have used Langrange points before):

By matching Earth-Moon Lagrangian points with astronauts operating telerobotic hardware, this will allow the assembly of infrastructure on the lunar surface, carry out scientific research, scout out and unearth important resources, as well as help other nations establish their own “one small step” onto the Moon.

This capability is an innovative advance in redefining the word “exploration” – and also is a powerful stepping stone to practice similar operations at Mars and its moons to establish a settlement on the planet Mars.



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Question about Lagrange points: Just how “point” are they? Seems to me like that real-estate would be down to the meter, gravitationally, second-to-second, and that maybe something that is in that point would also move second-to-second even if just idle. And so no two things could exist in an exactly perfect Lagrange point at the same time. Maybe I’m wrong and there’s a big globe of stability centered around a Lagrange point. But I’m worried that these perfect points will soon be even worse than our planet’s space junk problem. It’ll be defunct things in a Lagrange point unable to move while other things try to reach there, and maybe run into defunct things and are destroyed.

Or in other words: How many things could be placed at Lagrange points until nothing else can be placed there? How many things without eternal self-correction mechanisms can be sent to a Lagrange point until there’s a big pile of inert crap there?