aerospace Astra Space astronomy cubesats Momentus nasa Rocket Lab spacex Starship Virgin Orbit

SpaceX bid on launch of NASA cubesat mission

Starship SN10 liftoff

WASHINGTON — A NASA competition to launch a cluster of cubesats attracted a bid from SpaceX, who appeared to offer a vehicle other than its current Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy.

NASA released March 11 the source selection statement from the competition to launch the Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) mission, a group of six cubesats to be launched into three orbital planes in 2022 to study tropical weather systems. NASA awarded a contract for the launch to Astra Feb. 26, valued at $7.95 million.

The agency said in the statement that it received five proposals last August for the mission. Besides Astra, two other small launch vehicle companies, Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit, submitted bids. A fourth came from Momentus, which offers in-space transportation services for satellites launched on rideshare missions.

The fifth bid came from SpaceX, which has a smallsat rideshare program, bundling groups of cubesats and other small satellites on Falcon 9 launches. However, the company did not appear to offer launch services from that program for the TROPICS competition.

In its assessment of the bidders, NASA noted a weakness in SpaceX’s proposal because the company “did not clearly demonstrate progress toward the resolution of the environmental assessment which results in risk associated with obtaining an FAA launch license, increasing the likelihood of delays that would affect contract performance.”

The source selection statement also identified a significant weakness regarding the “risk to launch approach” for the mission, noting the company had not updated an integrated master schedule in its initial proposal. “As a result, there is significant risk in the proposed launch approach based on the required launch date and the current status of the proposed launch vehicle that increases the likelihood of unsuccessful contract performance.”

Neither criticism would appear to apply to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles currently in service. Both vehicles have launch licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration, which updated an environmental assessment for launches from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and Kennedy Space Center in July 2020. SpaceX has won a series of contracts for launches of larger NASA missions using those vehicles.

An intriguing possibility is that SpaceX instead offered its Starship vehicle under development. That vehicle has an FAA launch license today only for its current series of suborbital test flights. The FAA is also performing an environmental assessment of SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, site for orbital launches of that vehicle. The agency recently published a “scoping summary report” outlining public comments it received in the scoping process of the assessment, but did not issue a schedule for the release of a draft version of the environmental assessment.

Starship would appear to be massively oversized for TROPICS. When launched with a booster called Super Heavy, Starship will be able to place more than 100 metric tons into low Earth orbit. SpaceX has previously suggested, though, that the Starship upper stage alone may be able to reach orbit, but without a significant payload. That could be sufficient for TROPICS, whose combined mass is about 56 kilograms.

SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment on its proposal for TROPICS.

In the source selection statement, NASA compared SpaceX’s proposal with that from Astra, whose Rocket 3 small launch vehicle has yet to reach orbit but which the company has declared orbit-capable after two test launches. Astra was cited for a weakness in its proposed launch site, citing development and range conflict issues. The statement did not disclose the launch site, but in the announcement of the contract last month, NASA said the launches would take place from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

While SpaceX also had a launch site risk “with obtaining an FAA launch license in time to support orbital test flights,” NASA concluded that the “risk in its launch approach based on the required launch date and current status of the proposed launch vehicle” was a bigger concern. That resulted in Astra being rated slightly higher than SpaceX regarding technical and management capability. SpaceX’s proposed price was also “somewhat higher” than Astra’s bid.

NASA also eliminated Virgin Orbit because its original bid did not fall in the “competitive range” the agency established, and it was the only bidder not asked to provide an updated proposal, due Feb. 5. Momentus was eliminated from consideration because its proposal did not demonstrate it could meet all the requirements of the launch services interface requirements document, which “places the government at extreme risk of unsuccessful contract performance.”

The competition came down to Astra and Rocket Lab, whose proposal had several strengths, but also a “significantly higher” price than Astra. NASA concluded that “after reviewing the benefits associated with Rocket Lab’s proposal and Astra’s assessed risk in combination with their significantly lower price, the technical benefits do not offset the significant difference in price” and selected Astra for launching the TROPICS mission.


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NASA Astrophysics Division embraces cubesats and smallsats

SAN FRANCISCO – Early next year, NASA plans to select a maximum of three Astrophysics Pioneers missions, investigations with a maximum price tag of $20 million, Michel Garcia, NASA Astrophysics Division smallsats lead program scientist, said at the virtual American Geophysical Union fall meeting.

NASA created the Astrophysics Pioneers initiative “to do compelling astrophysics science in smaller form factors and at lower costs than traditional Explorers,” Garcia said at a NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee meeting in March.

Pioneers supports investigations that would exceed the $10 million cost cap for the Astrophysics Research and Analysis program element of Research and Opportunities in Space grant program.

Pioneers missions can fly on cubesats larger than six units, cubesat constellations, small satellites, the International Space Station or balloons that remain in the atmosphere for a month or more. The $20 million cost cap for Pioneers missions does not include launch costs.

Principal investigators proposed 24 Pioneers missions in October to house advanced coronagraphs, ultra-stable clocks, polarimeters and radio interferometers. The proposed missions are destined for various orbits including Lagrange Point 2 and cis-lunar space.

NASA established the Pioneers program in 2020 partly to encourage researchers to take advantage of inexpensive satellite buses, advances in balloon technology and low-cost space transportation.

“This is an opportunity for us to strengthen our partnership with commercial providers,” Garcia said. He noted some commercial products that showed promise, adding, “This is not a complete list.”

For example, SpaceX plans to begin offering frequent rides for 200-kilogram class secondary payloads to sun synchronous orbit starting at $1 million. “That’s cheaper than what we’re doing now under the CubeSat Launch Initiative,” Garcia said.

In addition, York Space Systems’ S-Class three-axis-stabilized satellite advertised for $1.2 million “lets you do astronomy,” Garcia said.

Blue Canyon Technologies, which Raytheon Technologies announced plans to acquire in November, also “has a fine bus,” Garcia said. While it is more expensive than York Space Systems’ S-Class, it can accommodate “a half meter telescope,” he added.

The NASA Astrophysics Division has solicited cubesat proposals since 2012 through the Astrophysics Research and Analysis program element of Research and Opportunities in Space grant program.

The HaloSat mission, led by the University of Iowa to survey hot gas in the Milky Way and launched in 2018, was the first NASA Astrophysics cubesat.

“It’s still flying, producing great science,” Garcia said.

The second astrophysics cubesat, Colorado Ultraviolet Transit Experiment (CUTE), is scheduled to launch in 2021 on the Landsat 9 Earth observation satellite. CUTE is a six-unit cubesat designed to characterize the composition and mass-loss rates of exoplanet atmospheres.

The NASA Astrophysics Division plans to spend approximately $5 million per year for cubesat missions, Garcia said.


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Exolaunch and NanoAvionics sign contracts for SpaceX flights

SAN FRANCISCO – German launch services provider Exolaunch announced contracts June 29 to integrate NanoAvionics cubesats on SpaceX’s rideshare missions.

Under the agreements, Exolaunch is procuring the launch, handling integration and deploying in orbit two six-unit cubesats built by NanoAvionics, a Lithuanian nanosatellite manufacturer. The first NanoAvionics cubesat covered by the new contract is scheduled to reach orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 dedicated rideshare mission in December 2020. The second is schedule for a 2021 SpaceX flight.

“We are glad to be collaborating with Exolaunch on these upcoming satellite launches,” Vytenis Buzas, NanoAvionics CEO and co-founder, said in a statement. “The company is an experienced and trusted partner that responds well to our needs. Not only do they provide deployment systems with a solid flight heritage, but their flexibility towards offering the most suitable launch solutions is extremely valuable to our company and customers.”

Exolaunch announced its first contract in April to send customer satellites on the December 2020 Falcon 9 rideshare flight.

“Exolaunch has numerous international customers who already signed up for this mission,” according to the June 29 news release. “Recently the company extended its contract with SpaceX for an additional ESPA port.” (ESPA is a rocket adapter for secondary payloads.)

“We quickly filled the slots procured on SpaceX’s first dedicated rideshare launch this year,” Exolaunch Commercial Director Jeanne Medvedeva told SpaceNews. “We’ve now started procuring capacity on Falcon 9 rideshare launches in 2021.”

NanoAvionics, a spinoff of Lithuania’s Vilnius University, has established facilities in Vilnius, the United Kingdom and the United States to satisfy growing demand for small satellites.

NanoAvionics is under contract to build five nanosatellites for Sen, a British company planning to stream high-definition video of Earth. A consortium of Norwegian and Dutch research centers hired NanoAvionics to build two nanosatellites for space-based spectrum monitoring. In addition, Thales Alenia Space selected NanoAvionics to manufacture the first two satellite buses for the Omnispace’s internet-of-things constellation.

Exolaunch plans to conduct mechanical testing prior to launching the NanoAvionics cubesats at its Berlin, Germany, headquarters, before integrating the satellites with SpaceX launch vehicles at Florida’s Cape Canaveral. The NanoAvionics satellites will be integrated on a Falcon 9 ESPA port and deployed in orbit using Exolaunch’s EXOpod cubesat deployer, according to the news release.