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SpaceX Launches DSCOVR Satellite at Last, but Skips Rocket Landing

Image: The unmanned Falcon 9 rocket, launched by SpaceX and carrying the Deep Space Climate Observatory Satellite, lifts off at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket rises from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Wednesday, lofting the Deep Space Climate Observatory into space. Scott Audette / Reuters

The third time was the charm for SpaceX — which launched the Deep Space Climate Observatory with its Falcon 9 rocket, but decided against trying to land the rocket's first stage on an oceangoing platform in rough seas.

The sunset liftoff took place at 6:03 p.m. ET Wednesday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, under perfect weather conditions. But how about the conditions for recovering the rocket after launch? Forget about it, SpaceX said.

The California-based company said its autonomous spaceport drone ship and its accompanying fleet of other vessels were heading back to port in Jacksonville, Florida. In a statement, SpaceX explained that the weather was too dangerous to keep the equipment and crew stationed hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic:

"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. Also, only three of the drone ship’s four engines are functioning, making station-keeping in the face of such wave action extremely difficult. The rocket will still attempt a soft landing in the water through the storm (producing valuable landing data), but survival is highly unlikely."

In a series of tweets, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said the drone ship left to avoid a "mega storm," and that the chances of the rocket stage's survival were less than 1 percent. He said he was "planning a significant upgrade of the drone ship for future missions to handle literally anything," and joked that he might even install a Merlin rocket engine on the ship.

After the launch, Musk said the soft landing went amazingly well. The Falcon 9 first stage dropped into the ocean in a "nicely vertical" orientation, within 33 feet (10 meters) of its target point. "High probability of good drone ship landing in non-stormy weather," he reported in a tweet.

Landing the rocket stage on the ship would have been a giant leap in SpaceX's quest for rocket reusability. A similar attempt last month almost worked. However, the rocket landing experiment was a completely optional aspect of the DSCOVR launch.

SpaceX Launch of Falcon 9 Rocket Successful 0:20

The primary goal was to get the refrigerator-sized observatory on its way to a gravitational balance point a million miles from Earth, known as L1. From that vantage point, DSCOVR is designed to provide advance warning of incoming solar storms that have the potential to disrupt power grids and satellite systems.

DSCOVR is also designed to provide full-disk imagery of Earth in multiple wavelengths, which can give scientists a better understanding of our planet and lead to improved climate prediction models.

The full-disk pictures started out as the point of the mission when it was first suggested by Vice President Al Gore in 1998. He was such a booster for the idea that the satellite came to be known derisively as "GoreSat." After Gore left office, the original mission was canceled and the spacecraft was put in storage. But over the course of several years, the spacecraft was retooled for solar storm sentry duty. The Earth imagery became a secondary payoff.

In a statement issued by NASA after liftoff, Gore said "it was inspiring to witness the launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory":

"DSCOVR has embarked on its mission to further our understanding of Earth and enable citizens and scientists alike to better understand the reality of the climate crisis and envision its solutions. DSCOVR will also give us a wonderful opportunity to see the beauty and fragility of our planet and, in doing so, remind us of the duty to protect our only home."

NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Air Force are splitting the $340 million cost of the revived mission. DSCOVR marks the first time that SpaceX, which helps resupply the International Space Station, has gotten involved in a deep-space venture.

The first launch attempt was scrubbed on Sunday due to problems with the Air Force's radar tracking system, and excessively high upper-level winds forced another postponement on Tuesday.

If Wednesday's launch attempt had to be called off, the next opportunity wouldn't have come until Feb. 20. That's because the position of the moon in its orbit would interfere with the in-space maneuvers required to send DSCOVR to the Earth-sun L1 gravitational balance point.

DSCOVR's science team says it will take about 110 days for the spacecraft to reach L1, and another 40 days for checkout of the instruments.