NASA Awards IMAP Probe Launch Contract to SpaceX

NASA announced that it has awarded a $109.4 million contract for launch of its Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) to SpaceX. Upon launch, the probe will proceed to a stable position at Earth’s L1 Lagrange point.

The contract also includes several secondary payloads for NASA and NOAA, including NASA’s Lunar Trailblazer, a compact scientific package that will investigate the presence of water on the Moon. NOAA is including a probe called Space Weather Follow-On Lagrange 1 (SWFO-L1) among the secondary payloads to collect upstream solar wind data and coronal imagery and improve its ability to predict space weather. Space weather events like coronal mass ejections can impact the performance of electronics if they are aimed at Earth.

IMAP represents the third probe launch contract in a row that NASA has awarded to SpaceX. In February 2020, it awarded contracts to launch the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite, which will provide data on the impact of climate change on Earth’s oceans, and the Psyche mission, which will study a unique metal-rich asteroid named Psyche. These two missions are scheduled to fly as early as December 2022 and July 2022, respectively.

The three contracts total $307 million. The Psyche launch contract is the highest of the three at $117 million, which implies that SpaceX will be using a new Falcon 9 rocket instead of one that has already been flown and may not attempt to land the first stage. The PACE launch contract is considerably lower at about $80 million. Landing and reusing rockets has very nearly become a trademark for SpaceX as it attempts to bring launch costs down.

By way of comparison, the United Launch Alliance is charging $165.7 million to launch the GOES-T climate satellite on an Atlas V 541 rocket and charged $230 million to launch the GOES-R and GOES-S satellites on rockets of the same model. SpaceX can save NASA an average of $50 million per launch simply by relaunching previously flown rockets, which has helped considerably in making SpaceX a serious competitor for established launch providers like the United Launch Alliance.

Not that NASA is SpaceX’s only potential customer by any means. International billionaires have expressed an interest in booking rides on upcoming flights of its interplanetary rocket, Starship, once it becomes operational. In late September, SpaceX announced that Tom Cruise’s flight to the International Space Station to film scenes for an as-yet-unnamed feature film has been scheduled for October 21.

IMAP will be capable of studying the heliosphere, a region at the edge of our solar system at which the solar wind begins to interact with the solar winds of other stars. The heliosphere is believed to be a sort of shield against interstellar radiation that would be harmful for life on Earth. IMAP can capture neutral particles that make it through this shield and study the ways that particles are accelerated in space. The launch of this probe is expected to occur in October 2024.