SpaceX wins NASA agreement to launch Earth science mission

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NASA awarded an agreement to SpaceX Feb. 4 for the launch of an Earth science mission has successfully staved off cancellation a few times.

NASA declared it selected SpaceX to launch the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) spacecraft on a Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in December 2022. The organization said the agreement is valued at $80.4 million, covering the launch and related services. SpaceX independently said the launch will utilize a “flight-proven” Falcon 9, one where the rocket’s first stage has previously propelled at least one mission.

“SpaceX is honored to continue supporting NASA’s critical scientific observational missions by launching PACE, which will help humanity better understand, protect and preserve our planet,” Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, in an organization statement.

The 1,700-kilogram PACE spacecraft will work in a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 676.5 kilometers. The spacecraft will carry the Ocean Color Imager, working from ultraviolet to shortwave infrared that will permit investigations of phytoplankton in the ocean, as well as two polarimeters to study properties of clouds, aerosols and the ocean. The mission has a cost cap of $805 million.

“The PACE mission represents the nation’s next great investment in understanding and protecting our home planet,” NASA said in the announcement reporting the launch contract. In any case, NASA’s last three budget proposals, for financial years 2018, 2019 and 2020, all looked to cancel PACE as a cost-savings measure. In every one of the three years, Congress reestablished funding for the mission, including $131 mission the mission in the financial year 2020 spending bill ordered in December.

SpaceX has propelled two NASA science missions to date, the Jason-3 oceanography satellite, and the TESS astronomy rocket. The organization currently has five such missions on its manifest, remembering awards in 2019 for the DART asteroid intercept mission the IXPE X-ray astronomy mission. The DART mission an agreement value of $69 million and the IXPE mission $50.3 million.

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