SpaceX wins first NASA science payload launch contract

Washington DC
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SpaceX has won an $82 million award to launch a NASA science payload aboard a Falcon 9, the first such contract awarded to a 'new space' company.

The award breaks the virtual monopoly on large payload launches held by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The Jason-3 satellite, which will measure ocean topography for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Europe's Eumetsat, is scheduled for launch in April, 2014.

The contract marks the first science contract awarded to SpaceX, the most established of 'new space' companies that have sprung up in recent years. NASA has separately granted the company money under the commercial crew development (CCDev) and commercial orbital transportation service (COTS) programmes to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) with crew and cargo. SpaceX became the first private company to dock with the ISS on a 25 May test flight.

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 ©SpaceX

Under the joint NASA-Air Force-National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) new entrant's criteria, released in October 2011, competitors for government launch contracts must demonstrate a certain degree of reliability, including at least three consecutive successful launches. More are required for larger and more sophisticated payloads.

Jason-3 is at the lower end of the spectrum, weighing in at 553kg (1,220lb) with a relatively low level of sophistication and relatively little lost should an incident occur. SpaceX will need to demonstrate at least 10 successful launches to become eligible for the most crucial and expensive payloads, which include interplanetary rovers and NRO spy satellites.

While no other new rockets are in line to compete directly against the Falcon 9, nor the much larger Falcon 9 Heavy currently being assembled, fellow COTS awardee Orbital Sciences has submitted the new Antares launch vehicle to compete for small payloads. Antares' first flight is tentatively scheduled for August 2012.