SpaceX wins contract to launch NASA Earth science mission


NASA awarded a contract to SpaceX Nov. 22 for the Falcon 9 launch of an Earth science satellite in 2021.

The award, with a total cost to NASA of $112 million, is for the launch of the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) spacecraft, scheduled for April 2021 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The contract, NASA said in a statement, includes the launch service itself as well as spacecraft processing, payload integration, and tracking, data and telemetry support.

The contract is the third SpaceX has won for NASA spacecraft, excluding its contracts under NASA’s commercial cargo and crew programs. A Falcon 9 launched the Jason-3 satellite in January under a contract awarded in 2012. SpaceX won a NASA contract in December 2014 for the launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, currently scheduled for no earlier than late 2017.

The cost of the SWOT contract is significantly higher than previous NASA contracts won by SpaceX. The Jason-3 contract was valued at $82 million and the TESS award at $87 million, according to the contract announcements. All are higher than the price SpaceX quotes on its web site for launch services alone, $62 million, which does not include the additional services or other mission assurance work in the NASA contracts. The total cost of the contract also includes payments to organizations other than SpaceX that support the launch and related services.

NASA spokeswoman Cheryl Warner said that the award values can differ from contract to contract depending on the specific requirements for each mission. “The specific launch service price is considered competition and procurement sensitive information,” she said Nov. 22.

“We’re excited to carry this critical science payload into orbit for NASA, the nation, and the international community,” Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, said in a statement to SpaceNews. “We appreciate NASA’s partnership and confidence in SpaceX as a launch provider.”

SWOT is a joint mission with the French space agency CNES to study how bodies of water change over time, providing global coverage twice every three weeks from near-polar orbit. CNES, which is responsible for the spacecraft itself, awarded a contract to Thales Alenia Space in January 2015 to develop the spacecraft. SWOT will have an estimated mass of 2,000 kilograms at launch.

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White House announces small satellite initiative


To promote the development of small satellites, collecting under one roof a number of efforts The white House announced a new initiative called “Harnessing the Small Satellites Revolution.”

The initiative, which announced in a White House Office of Science and Technology Policy statement, highlights several ongoing efforts by NASA, the Pentagon and other federal government agencies to help develop smallsats or make use of images or other data they provide.

“The recent advent of small sats, spacecraft that weigh anywhere from an ounce to as much as a few hundred pounds, has upended that status quo.  The same advances in electronics and communications technologies that enabled smartphones and put significant computing power in the palm of everyone’s hand are allowing scientists and engineers to design smallsats and coordinated networks of multiple smallsats that deliver novel and diverse capabilities from orbit.  These capabilities can sometimes be delivered at a fraction of the cost and time of legacy satellite systems.  Scientists and engineers can more quickly test their systems on orbit, allowing them to devise new, better systems more quickly, shortening the cycle of innovation and finally bringing “Moore’s Law” to space,” the OSTP wrote in blog announcing the program.

Some Highlights of the announcements:

  • NASA will propose up to $30 million to support data buys for smallsats, including up to million $25 million to support data buys derived and purchased from non-governmental small spacecraft constellations and $5 million to advance small spacecraft constellation technologies.


  • NASA will establish a Small Spacecraft Virtual Institute at Ames Research Center in the heart of Silicon Valley early in 2017.  The Virtual Institute will provide a “one-stop shop” for technical knowledge in the rapidly burgeoning small spacecraft technology fields.  It will also act within the agency to promote relevant programs, guidance, opportunities, and best practices, as well as share lessons learned on smallsat missions.


  • A more direct effort has the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency awarding Planet a $20 million contract for a fleet of small satellites that can capture images of “at least” 85 percent of the planet every 15 days.


  • NGA will partner with the General Services Administration to develop an efficient, single point to access and purchase commercially-provided imagery, data, analytical capabilities, and services.


  • The Department of Commerce will elevate the role of the Office of Space Commerce to reflect the growing importance of commercial space as a driver of economic growth, productivity, and job creation.  This will let the Office’s Director to advise the Secretary of Commerce on commercial space issues and the office coordinate policy on critical issues such as licensing, export controls, export promotion, and open data.


  • The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) will release satellite datasets as part of two prize-driven challenges to achieve breakthroughs in the analysis of overhead imagery.


If all goes well, the effort will give private outfits a stronger incentive to build small satellites. They’ll have customers ready and waiting to buy the fruits of their labor.


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First launch for Orbital’s Antares rocket since ’14 blast


Orbital ATK Successfully launched its Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight facility in Virginia for the first time since a massive explosion after liftoff two years ago en route to the International Space Station.

Since then, the rocket’s main engines have been replaced and on Monday they flawlessly propelled the Antares away from the same Launchpad. The Antares 230 is powered by new RD-181 engines from Russian manufacturer NPO Energomash.

The new Antares 230 rocket propelled an unmanned cargo capsule, called Cygnus, toward the orbiting outpost carrying  more than 7,100 lbs of supplies, food and science experiments.

A number of those experiments will study how fire behaves in microgravity and another will test out how different lighting conditions in space may affect astronauts’ health.

The Cygnus won’t deliver these experiments for a while, though. It’ll only take two and a half days for the capsule to perform the right maneuvers and reach the ISS, but the Cygnus is going to “loiter” a few extra days in space afterward. That’s because a Soyuz capsule is slated to bring three new crew members to the ISS on Friday, and NASA wants to wait to dock the Cygnus until after the new astronauts have arrived safely. If the Antares had launched on Sunday October 16th, as it was supposed to, the Cygnus would have been hooked up to the ISS on the 19th. But now the capsule will dock with the ISS on Sunday October 23rd.

The previous Antares rocket exploded in a fireball on October 28, 2014, just seconds after liftoff, destroying the cargo capsule and damaging the launch pad.

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