SpaceX Wins NASA Contract to Launch Earth Science Mission

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

NASA announced 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 agency said the contract is valued at $80.4 million, covering the launch and related services. SpaceX separately said the launch will use a “flight-proven” Falcon 9, one where the rocket’s first stage has previously launched one or more missions.

“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 a company statement.

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The 1,700-kilogram PACE spacecraft will operate in a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 676.5 kilometers. The spacecraft will carry the Ocean Color Imager, operating from ultraviolet to shortwave infrared that will allow studies 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 statement announcing the launch contract. However, NASA’s last three budget proposals, for fiscal years 2018, 2019 and 2020, all sought to cancel PACE as a cost-savings measure. In all three years, Congress restored funding for the mission, including a $131 mission for the mission in the fiscal year 2020 spending bill enacted in December.

SpaceX has launched two NASA science missions to date, the Jason-3 oceanography satellite and the TESS astronomy spacecraft. The company now has five such missions on its manifest, including awards in 2019 for the DART asteroid intercept mission and the IXPE X-ray astronomy mission. The DART mission has a contract value of $69 million and the IXPE mission $50.3 million.

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