NASA Chooses Falcon Heavy to Launch Roman Space Telescope

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

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

Roman is the next big astrophysics mission, or flagship, after the James Webb Space Telescope. The spacecraft includes a 2.4-meter primary mirror, donated to NASA a decade ago by the National Reconnaissance Office, along with a wide-field instrument and a coronagraph to conduct research in cosmology, exoplanets and general astrophysics .

The spacecraft, with a mass of about 4,200 kilograms, will operate from the Earth-Sun Lagrange point L-2, a region of space about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth in the opposite direction. under the sun. This is the same location where JWST and several other astrophysics missions operate.

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

SpaceX offers the Falcon Heavy at a list price of $97 million. The company raised that price earlier this year by $90 million, citing “excessive levels of inflation.”

SpaceX may not have had competition for the Roman launch. Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance, tweeted in February that his company did not submit a bid for the launch. His company’s Vulcan Centaur has yet to make its first launch. Blue Origin’s New Glenn has not yet launched.

Roman is a key mission for NASA, not only for science, but also for program management. Previously called the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the mission is the highest priority flagship mission of the 2010 Astrophysics Decadal Survey. The most recent Decadal Survey, released in November 2021, concluded that Roman “remains both powerful and necessary to achieve the scientific goals” set out in the previous survey.

Despite early challenges and several agency budget proposals that sought to end the mission, Roman continued to develop. Last year, however, the mission suffered a seven-month launch delay and a $382 million cost hike that the agency blamed on the effects of the pandemic. The mission now has a total life cycle cost of $4.32 billion.

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

Keeping Roman on schedule and on budget is critical, agency officials said, to build confidence in its ability to handle large science missions after significant cost and schedule overruns with JWST. Only then, they argue, will NASA be able to pursue large space telescopes like those approved by the last decadal survey of astrophysics, such as a six-meter space telescope for observations in optical wavelengths. , ultraviolet and infrared.

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

“Unless NASA can show that we have learned the lessons from the mistakes that were made in the management of the James Webb Space Telescope program and we can show that we can apply those lessons to another very expensive and large observatory. very difficult, like the Nancy Grace. Roman space telescope, no one will take us seriously,” he argued.