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SpaceX Falcon rockets win NASA’s third consecutive launch contract

SpaceX’s Falcon rocket family continues to dominate the US launch market, most recently securing NASA’s third consecutive launch contract this year.

On September 25, NASA announced that it had awarded SpaceX a contract to launch its Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission and several rideshare payloads. For $ 109.4 million, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the spacecraft (of unknown mass) to Earth’s L1 Lagrange point from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) no earlier than (NET) October 2024.

An artist’s conception of the IMAP spacecraft. (NASA)

IMAP is the third consecutive launch contract that NASA has awarded to SpaceX. In early February 2020, the space agency awarded SpaceX a $ 80.4 million contract to launch the PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem) mission on Falcon 9 in December 2022. At the end of February , the space agency has again chosen SpaceX, signing a $ 117 contract to launch the Psyche spacecraft on a Falcon Heavy rocket in July 2022.

NASA’s PACE spacecraft. (NASA)
NASA’s Psyche spacecraft. (NASA)

Overall, in the past seven months, NASA has awarded SpaceX – and SpaceX alone – three launch contracts worth a total of $ 307 million. NASA’s latest launch contract win from competitor United Launch Alliance (ULA) came in December 2019, when the space agency awarded the company $ 165.7 million for the launch of the GOES-T climate satellite in December 2021 on an Atlas V 541 rocket. On average, every single SpaceX contract saves NASA at least $ 50 million on launch costs alone.

Before SpaceX broke ULA’s monopoly on US launch services, the company actually charged NASA ~ $ 230 million to launch similar GOES-R and GOES-S satellites on Atlas V 541 rockets, implying that the reintroduction of competition can and has reduced the prices of ULA by about 40%.

Curiously though, the price of NASA’s IMAP Falcon 9 launch contract is extremely high compared to most of NASA’s other Falcon 9 missions, including PACE. At $ 109.4 million, IMAP’s Falcon 9 contract will cost just $ 6.6 million – 5.6% – less than Psyche’s Falcon Heavy launch contract.

At present, little or nothing is publicly known about IMAP’s bulk or its ~ 4 rideshare passengers. NASA’s launch calculator suggests that a Falcon 9 with drone ship booster recovery can launch up to ~ 3400 kg (7500 lb) at Lagrange point 1, a kind of gravitational vortex fixed between Earth and the Sun. Possible that SpaceX is simply more experienced and is putting a little less money where its mouth is in regards to reducing the cost of accessing space, IMAP’s contract price strongly implies that the mission will be expendable for Falcon 9.

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