NASA selects Falcon Heavy to launch Roman Space Telescope

WASHINGTON — NASA has chosen SpaceX to launch the Roman Nancy Grace Space Telescope on a Falcon Heavy rocket, but at a much higher price than the agency’s previous contracts.

NASA announced on July 19 that it had awarded a contract to SpaceX to launch a Roman rocket 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 launch and other mission-related costs.

Roman is the next big astrophysics mission after the James Webb Space Telescope. The spacecraft features a 2.4-meter-diameter primary mirror, donated to NASA a decade ago by the National Reconnaissance Office, with an extensive field instrument and crown paragraph for research in cosmology, exoplanets and general astrophysics.

The spacecraft, which has a mass of about 4,200 kilograms, will operate from the Earth-Sun point L-2 Lagrange, a region of space 1.5 million kilometers from Earth in the direction away from the Sun. This is the same site 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 to launch the Falcon Heavy for the Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter in 2024 worth $178 million. a September 2021 contract for Falcon Heavy launch of GOES-U weather satellitealso in 2024, valued at $152.5 million.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy offers a commercial list price of $97 million. company This price increased earlier this year of $90 million, citing “excessive levels of inflation.”

SpaceX probably had no competition at all for the Roman launch. Tori Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance, chirp In February, his company was not bidding at all. His company, Vulcan Centaur, did not start after its first launch. Blue Origin’s New Glenn hasn’t launched either.

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Roman is a major mission for NASA not only for science but also for program management. Formerly known as the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the mission was the main high-priority mission of the 2010 Astrophysical Decadal Survey. The most recent decadal survey, published in November 2021, concluded that Roman “remains robust and necessary.” to achieve the scientific objectives” stipulated in the previous survey.

Despite early challenges and several agency budget proposals that sought to finish the job, Roman continued to develop. Last year, though, The mission suffered a seven-month launch delay and a $382 million cost increase That the agency blamed the effects of the epidemic. The mission’s total lifecycle cost is now $4.32 billion.

The Government Accountability Office’s assessment of major NASA programs published in June warned of the potential for further delays in the Romanian language, citing issues with the spacecraft’s primary mirror assembly and restriction editing triggers.

Agency officials said that keeping Roman on schedule and on budget is critical to building confidence in her ability to run large science missions after the significant cost and scheduling of overruns with the JWST. Only then, they argue, can NASA pursue large space telescopes such as those endorsed by the latest astrophysics decadal survey, such as the six-meter space telescope for observations in optical, ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths.

“Number one on the priority list is making sure that the Roman Space Telescope is delivered within cost and schedule,” Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, said at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in June.

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“Unless NASA can show that we have learned lessons from mistakes made in managing the James Webb Space Telescope program and can show that we can apply these lessons to another large, very expensive and very difficult observatory, such as Nancy Grace’s Roman Space Telescope, no one will take us seriously. “.

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