NASA and SpaceX’s Growing Relationship Points to More Than Its Latest IMAP Mission
NASA has just picked SpaceX for the launch of the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission and four secondary payloads. The Falcon 9 Full Thrust rocket will leave Cape Canaveral in October 2024 and has a total estimated cost of $109.4 million.
The choice of SpaceX for NASA’s IMAP mission, announced September 28, is the latest in a series of wins by the American space exploration company.
The contract includes the launch of the IMAP spacecraft and four secondary payloads, including a space weather observatory, a robotic scout to map water on the moon, and two ridealong payloads for a cost of over a hundred million dollars.
The launch will be boosted by a Falcon 9 rocket and is scheduled to happen in October 2024 from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
In 2018, NASA selected a team to put a Sun-tracking spin-stabilized satellite in orbit around the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point, nearly a million miles (1.5 million km) from Earth.
IMAP is a heliophysics mission that will help us understand the heliosphere — the magnetic barrier that surrounds our solar system and protects it from harmful cosmic radiation.
The mission’s goal is to investigate the acceleration of energetic particles that make it through, and the interaction between the solar wind and the local interstellar medium, or winds from other stars. Fitted with ten instruments, IMAP will also continuously broadcast real-time data that will also be used for predicting space weather.
SpaceX’s launch will carry several secondary payloads as well, as part of NASA’s initiative to take advantage of excess capacity. This includes the Lunar Trailblazer smallsat (a small spacecraft built by Lockheed Martin that will look for water ice on the moon while it orbits it) and the NOAA’s Space Weather Follow-On L-1 mission (a monitoring mission that also operates at the L-1 point and can detect solar flares that threaten Earth with disruptions in communications and electrical grids).
Two more heliophysics “missions of opportunity” will be selected later to join the launch. In a solicitation, NASA selected SIHLA and GLIDE. The first would collect complementary data to IMAP and the second would study how the exosphere (outermost region of a planet’s atmosphere) responds to changes in solar activity. Other missions such as SETH (optical communications technology for small satellites and CubeSats) and Solar Cruiser (using solar graduation as a propulsion system) are also being considered.
SpaceX and NASA
IMAP is one of four contracts that NASA has awarded to SpaceX for launches using the Falcon 9 rocket. The Falcon 9 is a reusable, two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle powered by Merlin engines, which use kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen as ticket propellants in a gas-generator power cycle.
In April 2019, the company was awarded a contract for the launch of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission, which will cost $69 million and happen in 2021. It also won the launch of the Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer smallsat, valued at $50.3 million, as well as the contract for the launch of the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem spacecraft for $80.4 million.
The IMAP mission is more expensive than the other three because it’s much more complex. The secondary payloads, for example, have to go to both the L-1 point and the moon. This puts it only slightly below the Psyche asteroid mission, the first Falcon Heavy contract NASA has given to SpaceX for a cost of $117 million.
In 2014, NASA awarded $4.2 billion to Boeing for the development of the Starliner vehicle, and $2.6 billion to SpaceX for a new version of the Dragon that could safely ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).
Starliner’s capsule malfunctioned during a key uncrewed test flight, but SpaceX and NASA made history last May when they successfully launched the first orbital human spaceflight mission carrying Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to and from the ISS.
Demo-2 marked the first time that a commercial aerospace company carried humans into Earth’s orbit, and the first manned flight since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. The program is said to have cost $55 million per seat, almost half of Russia’s Soyuz $90 million of set launches.
The relationship between NASA and SpaceX has evolved dramatically over the past years. Private companies are increasingly looking for business opportunities in space. Their collaboration with government agencies so far has reduced costs and driven unprecedented innovation, creating a positive outcome for the years to come.