NASA selects SpaceX to launch small space ridesharing mission

WASHINGTON — NASA has selected SpaceX to launch a pair of small satellites to study space weather as part of a ridesharing mission in 2025.

NASA announced on September 29 that it has awarded SpaceX a mission order to launch the Tandem Reconnection and Space Electrodynamics Reconnaissance (TRACERS) reconnaissance satellites, a pair of small satellites that will study space weather and the magnetosphere from low Earth orbit.

NASA selected TRACERS in 2019 as a Small Heliophysics Explorer, or SMEX, mission, at a cost of just $115 million. At the time, it was planned to be launched as a secondary payload with another SMEX mission, the Polarimeter for Unifying Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH). However, in August 2022, NASA said PUNCH would fly aboard the same Falcon 9 rocket as the agency’s Astrophysics, Spectrophotometer for the History of the Universe, Era of Reionization, and Ice Explorer (SPHEREx) mission in 2025.

NASA’s announcement of the launch of Tracers did not mention how the spacecraft would be launched other than the Falcon 9, nor did it specify a launch date. TRACERS will be the primary payload for a ridesharing mission that will go into sun-synchronous orbit no later than April 2025, NASA spokesman Lejay Lockhart said Sept. 29.

As with previous awards made through the Venture Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) contract, NASA declined to state the value of the mission order, saying such information is “competition-sensitive information” that could influence bids on future mission orders. According to a government procurement database, NASA added $3.593 million to SpaceX’s VADR contract on September 26, but did not explicitly tie it to the TRACERS mission order.

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Once placed in a sun-synchronous orbit, the two spacecraft will make repeated crossings of the polar boundaries of Earth’s magnetosphere, where field lines bend to the north and south poles, to study interactions known as magnetic reconnection between the solar wind and the Earth’s magnetosphere. .

The mission is led by David Miles of the University of Iowa, who took over as principal investigator after the death of Craig Klitzing, also of the University of Iowa, in August. The spacecraft is being built by Millennium Space Systems.

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