A satellite conceived by then-Vice President Al Gore 17 years ago as a real-time whole-Earth imager, and later converted to an early warning "buoy" for solar storms, is on its way to its parking spot 1 million mi. from Earth after launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9.

As the two-year, $340 million mission of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (Dscovr) got underway, controllers at the SpaceX facility in Hawthorne, California, monitored another attempt to fly a Falcon 9 first stage back to a zero-velocity, tail-down touchdown at sea. But they abandoned a second attempt to land on a special barge because of rough seas in the landing zone about 370 mi. down range from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Because of the velocity required for the mission to Discovr parking spot — the Sun-Earth L-1 Lagrangian point where the gravitational interaction of the two bodies allows a stable orbit around a fixed point in space — the reentry speed was about twice that of the previous attempt Jan. 10 on a space-station resupply mission, and SpaceX had estimated only a 50-50 chance of a successful landing had one been attempted.

Liftoff into the instantaneous launch window required for the L-1 target came at 6:03 p.m. EST, as the Sun was setting behind the launch pad. The launch was scrubbed shortly before an attempt on Feb. 8 because of a tracking issue on the range, and a second attempt was scrubbed Feb. 10 due to upper-level winds.

According to a timeline outlined Feb. 7 by Hans Koenigsmann, the vice president of mission assurance at SpaceX, the nine Merlin first-stage engines burned for 165 sec., followed by stage separation and ignition of the single Merlin in the second stage. Forty seconds into that burn, the fairing shielding the 1,257-lb. (570 kg) spacecraft was jettisoned, and 8 min. after that, the second stage engine shut down for a 22-min. coast. A final burn sent Dscovr on its 110-day transit way to L-1, and spacecraft separation came 35 min. after liftoff.

Ultimately SpaceX hopes to fly first stages back to a landing zone near the launch site and refurbish them for reuse, which could dramatically lower the cost of launch. For this mission, SpaceX emphasized, the landing attempt was strictly a secondary objective to getting Dscovr to L-1.

In that position it will be able to give warning of charged particles approaching Earth from solar storms. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) currently uses similar data from NASA’s 17-year-old Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft, also stationed at L-1, to warn airlines, satellite operators, power companies and others of threats to their systems posed by coronal mass ejections.

Gore conceived the spacecraft, originally named Triana, as an educational tool able to give up-to-the-minute views of the sunlit Earth from the vantage point of L-1. The satellite was built at a reported cost of $100 million, but the incoming George W. Bush administration canceled the mission – ridiculed by Republican lawmakers as "GoreSat" – and NASA stored it in a clean room at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland

When it was restarted as a solar observatory in 2012, NASA refurbished and upgraded its three instruments. The Plasma-Magnetometer will measure solar wind activity, while its National Institute of Standards and Technology Advanced Radiometer will provide data on the absolute spectral irradiance of the Earth’s sunlit face. The Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera will provide a view of the whole Earth as planned, but only four to six times per day instead of continuously as Gore originally envisioned it.

The mission is funded for two years, but the spacecraft has a planned service life of five years, and NOAA officials said it is likely to continue in its role as a warning "buoy" longer than that.