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SpaceX wins contract to launch NASA Earth science mission


WASHINGTON — NASA awarded a contract to SpaceX Nov. 22 for the Falcon 9 launch of an Earth science satellite in 2021, but at a significantly higher price than previous awards.

The award, valued at $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 value of the SWOT contract is significantly higher than both the price SpaceX quotes on its web site for Falcon 9 missions — $62 million — and previous NASA contracts. The Jason-3 contract was valued at $82 million and the TESS award at $87 million, according to the contract announcements. The NASA announcement did not explain the increase in the contract value for the SWOT contract versus the earlier awards.

“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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SpaceX wins contract to launch NASA Earth science mission

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