May 12, 2021

NASA Awards SpaceX the contract to launch its Astrophysics Mission

For a while now, especially these past two years, NASA and SpaceX have been collaborating quite often. That doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon since NASA just awarded Space X yet another contract. It is an agreement of the former launching an astrophysics spacecraft belonging to the latter.

Following the contract, the responsibility of launching the Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization, and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) now falls in the hands of SpaceX. According to the schedule, it will take place in June 2024. The lift-off rocket will be Falcon 9. NASA will incur some money for the launch and mission, amounting to $98.8 million.

The agency has been launching astrophysics missions in its MIDEX line, often referred to as Medium-Class Explorers. This time around, SPHEREx is what it plans to launch as part of the same. Its success would result in a database of various heavenly bodies in the sky, among them asteroids, stars, and galaxies. It will comprise a survey of the sky every six months thrice. Therefore, it will most likely take two months.

Initially, the launch was to take place in 2023. However, that has in recent times changed to any day between June 2024 and April 2025. Last month, its development entered Phase C, which is about transforming the design into the real thing. The change of the timetable is understandable since the process will take quite some time. Equally important, there will be tests and the launch eventually. There is also the coronavirus global pandemic that has disrupted almost everything. It is important to note that SPHEREx has cost NASA about $242 million without the launch cost.

In the last two years, SpaceX has won several contracts from NASA. The Falcon 9 has won the most, including Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE), Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) planetary defense mission, Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) space science mission, and Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) astrophysics satellite. Its Falcon Heavy also won the Psyche mission launch.

Out of all the contracts, IXPE was the cheapest, with a worth of $50.3 million. On the other hand, Psyche was the most expensive, and its value was $117 million. SPHEREx mission is also a heavyweight, only coming second to the IMAP mission on the list of the most expensive Falcon 9 launches. IMAP cost $109.4 million, which is obviously more than that of SPHEREx, $98.8 million. The size of SPHEREx is relatively small since its weight is not even 200 kg. That’s less than the capacity of Falcon 9, which means NASA might have space for extra missions.