SpaceX Wins NASA Contract for Rideshare Launch of Smallsat Mission

NASA has selected SpaceX for the rideshare launch of a smallsat mission. The launched satellites will study space weather as part of a joint mission in 2025.

On September 29, NASA announced it had awarded SpaceX a launch order for the Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites (TRACERS), according to SpaceNews. It will be a pair of small satellites that will study space weather and the magnetosphere from low Earth orbit.

NASA selected TRACERS in 2019 as the Small Explorer heliophysics mission, or SMEX, costing no more than $115 million. At the time, it was planned to launch as a secondary payload alongside another SMEX mission. However, in August 2022, NASA announced that the Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH) would fly on the same Falcon 9 as the agency’s astrophysics mission, the Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Re-ionization, and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) in 2025.

NASA has not provided broader data about the TRACERS launch. At the moment, it is expected to be launched on Falcon 9. The launch date has also not been announced. NASA spokesperson Leejay Lockhart said Sept. 29 that TRACERS will be the primary payload of a rideshare mission going to sun-synchronous orbit no earlier than April 2025.

NASA declined to disclose the cost of the mission order. The agency said such information is “competition sensitive information” and could affect rates on future task orders.

The mission is led by David Miles of the University of Iowa. He took over as principal investigator after the death in August of Craig Kletzing, also of the University of Iowa. Once placed into sun-synchronous orbit, the two spacecraft will perform repeated crossings of the polar cusp of the Earth’s magnetosphere, as field lines bend down to the north and south poles, studying the interactions known as magnetic reconnection between the solar wind and terrestrial magnetosphere.

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