SpaceX Wins Contract to Launch NASA Small Astrophysics Mission

Launch Black Hole Spacecraft NASA SpaceX

Launch Black Hole Spacecraft NASA SpaceX

CAPE CANAVERAL-NASA has awarded SpaceX a $50 million contract to launch an X-ray observatory created to measure polarized light from black holes, neutron stars and other high-energy astrophysical objects. This trend appears to indicate the agency's growing trust in SpaceX with this latest award going so far as to allow the mission to be launched aboard a flight-proven Falon 9.

The IXPE mission was selected in 2017, and was back then listed among NASA's small astrophysics missions.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard takes off during the Demo-1 mission, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 2, 2019.

SpaceX's President and Chief Operating Officer, Gwynne Shotwell, made the following statement after the announcement of the contract award.

The total cost for NASA to launch IXPE is approximately $50.3 million, which includes the launch service and other mission-related costs, the USA space agency said on Tuesday. The only mission which comes in the name of Northrop Grumman's Pegasus is the launch of NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, spacecraft.

For SpaceX, the IXPE mission will serve as a clear indication of the company's capabilities in delivering vital payloads to space for scientific advancement.

Small science missions in astrophysics, Earth science and heliophysics had been the primary customers of the Pegasus XL. The total cost of the mission, including launch and operations, is $188 million. NASA has yet to announce a new launch date for ICON. That source of business for the venerable rocket, though, could be in jeopardy with NASA's decision to launch IXPE on the Falcon 9, as well as the emergence of low-priced small launch vehicles that could seek certification from NASA's Launch Services Program in the near future. The plan is to launch four satellites named the Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere, or PUNCH. The PUNCH mission was supposed to be executed on a rocket by Pegasus but the agency made a decision to launch it in a different spacecraft. Pulsers are the dense collapsed remains which are left behind after the explosion of the stars.

The telescopes are part of NASA's ongoing Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE, mission which measures X-rays from cosmic objects like black holes and stars to better understand outer space.