NASA chooses Falcon Heavy to launch Roman space telescope

NASA chooses Falcon Heavy to launch Roman space telescope

WASHINGTON – NASA has chosen SpaceX to launch the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope on a Falcon Heavy, but at a price significantly higher than previous agency contracts.

NASA announced on July 19 that it awarded a contract to SpaceX to launch Roman on the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket in October 2026 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The contract is valued at $ 255 million for the launch and other assignment-related costs.

The novel is the next major, or flagship, astrophysics mission after the James Webb Space Telescope. The spacecraft has a 2.4-meter primary mirror, donated to NASA a decade ago by the National Reconnaissance Office, with a wide field instrument and a coronal graph to conduct research in cosmology, exoplanets and general astrophysics.

The spacecraft, with a mass of around 4,200 kilograms, will operate from the Earth-Sun L-2 Lagrange Point, an area of ​​space about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth in the direction away from the Sun. It is the same place where JWST and several other astrophysics missions operate.

The value of the launch contract is much higher than previous NASA awards for Falcon Heavy missions. NASA awarded SpaceX a contract a year ago for a Falcon Heavy launch of the Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter in 2024 worth 178 million dollars. A September 2021 contract for the Falcon Heavy launch of the GOES-U weather satellite, also in 2024, is worth $ 152.5 million.

SpaceX is offering the Falcon Heavy at a commercial list price of $ 97 million. The company raised its price earlier this year from $ 90 million, citing “excessive inflation.”

SpaceX may not have had any competition for the Roman launch. Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance, twitret in February that his company did not bid on the launch. The company’s Vulcan Centaur has not yet made its first launch. Blue Origins New Glenn has not launched yet either.

The novel is a key mission for NASA, not only for science but also program management. Formerly known as the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the mission is the top-priority flagship mission from the 2010 astrophysics ten-year survey. The latest ten-year survey, published in November 2021, concluded that Roman “remains both powerful and necessary to achieve the scientific goals” set forth in the previous survey.

Despite early challenges and several agency budget proposals that tried to end the mission, Roman has continued the development. Last year, however, the mission suffered a seven-month launch delay and cost increase of $ 382 million that the agency owed to the effects of the pandemic. The mission now has a total life cycle cost of $ 4.32 billion.

A Government Accountability Office assessment of major NASA programs published in June warned of the potential for further delays in the novel, citing problems with the spacecraft’s primary mirror mounting and retention release actuators.

Keeping the novel on time and within budget is crucial, the agency’s officials said, to build confidence that it can handle large scientific assignments after the significant costs and schedule overruns with JWST. Only then, they claim, can NASA pursue large space telescopes like those approved by the latest astrophysical ten-year study, such as a six-meter space telescope for observations in optical, ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths.

“Number one on the priority list is to ensure that the Roman Space Telescope is delivered within our cost and schedule commitments,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics department, at a June meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

“Unless NASA can show that we have learned from the mistakes made in the management of the James Webb Space Telescope program, and we can show that we can use these lessons in another very expensive, very difficult great observatory, like Nancy Grace. “Roman space telescope, no one wants to take us seriously,” he claimed.

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