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NASA selects Falcon Heavy to launch Rome Space Telescope

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Roman Space Telescope
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WASHINGTON — NASA has chosen SpaceX to launch the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope on the Falcon Heavy, but at a cost significantly higher than the agency’s previous contracts.

On July 19, NASA announced a contract with SpaceX to launch Roman on the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket in October 2026 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The contract is valued at $255 million for launch and other mission-related costs.

Roman is the next major or flagship astrophysical mission after the James Webb Space Telescope. The spacecraft is equipped with a 2.4-meter primary mirror donated by NASA a decade ago from the National Reconnaissance Agency, a wide-field instrument and a coronagraph for research in cosmology, exoplanets and general astrophysics.

The spacecraft, weighing about 4200 kg, will operate from the Earth-Sun Lagrange point L-2, a region of space about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth in the direction from the Sun. This is the same location where JWST and several other astrophysics missions operate.

The cost of the launch contract is much higher than previous NASA awards for Falcon Heavy missions. A year ago, NASA awarded SpaceX a $178 million Falcon Heavy Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter in 2024. The September 2021 contract to launch the Falcon Heavy weather satellite GOES-U, also in 2024, is worth $152.5 million.

SpaceX is offering the Falcon Heavy for a list price of $97 million. Earlier this year, the company increased that price from $90 million, citing “excessive inflation.”

SpaceX may not have had any competition in the Rome launch. Tori Bruno, Executive Director of United Launch Alliance, tweeted in February that his company did not bid for the launch. His company’s Vulcan Centaur has yet to make its first launch. Blue Origin’s New Glenn hasn’t launched yet either.

The novel is a key NASA mission not only for science but also for program management. The mission, formerly the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), is the priority flagship mission of the 2010 Decennial Astrophysical Survey. The latest 10-year review, published in November 2021, concluded that Roman “remains powerful and necessary to achieve the scientific goals” set out in the previous review.

Despite initial problems and several agency budget proposals aimed at terminating the mission, Roman continued development. However, last year the mission’s launch was delayed by seven months and the cost increased by $382 million, which the agency blamed on the effects of the pandemic. The mission’s total life cycle cost is currently $4.32 billion.

The Government Accountability Office’s assessment of NASA’s major programs released in June warned of the possibility of further delays at Roman, citing problems with the spacecraft’s main mirror assembly and restraint release actuators.

Agency officials said keeping Roman on schedule and budget is critical to building confidence that it can manage large science missions after significant spending and overscheduling with JWST. They argue that only then will NASA be able to tackle large space telescopes like those approved by the last decade-long review of astrophysics, such as the six-meter space telescope for optical, ultraviolet and infrared observations.

“Number one on the list of priorities is to make sure that the Roman Space Telescope is delivered within our cost and schedule commitments,” Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, said at an American Astronomical Society meeting in June.

“Unless NASA can show that we have learned from the mistakes made in managing the James Webb Space Telescope program, and we cannot show that we can apply those lessons to another very expensive, very complex large observatory like Nancy Grace. Roman Space Telescope, no one will take us seriously, ”he said.


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