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SpaceX wins NASA contract to launch ocean-surveying satellite

The cost of launching the probe is valued at $112 million

Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images

SpaceX has won another contract from NASA to launch one of the agency’s Earth science satellites in less than five years. The satellite in question is the Surface Water and Ocean Topography vehicle, or SWOT, and it’s designed to scan the planet’s oceans and provide the “first-ever global survey of Earth’s surface water.” The satellite will ride to space on one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, with a target launch date of April 2021 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

It marks yet another critical science mission that SpaceX will be launching for NASA. The company launched the Jason-3 ocean-monitoring satellite for the space agency in January, and in 2017 SpaceX is supposed to launch NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, designed to look for small planets around bright stars outside our Solar System.

“We’re excited to carry this critical science payload into orbit for NASA, the nation, and the international community,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement. “We appreciate NASA’s partnership and confidence in SpaceX as a launch provider.”

A rendering of the SWOT satellite

The total cost of launching SWOT is valued at $112 million, according to NASA, which seems a little pricey given SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets supposedly start at $62 million. Plus, it’s a much higher value than previous launch contracts NASA has awarded to SpaceX; the cost of launching the Jason-3 satellite was valued at $82 million, and the cost of launching TESS is $87 million.

Well according to NASA, the $112 million doesn’t just cover the cost of launching the Falcon 9 rocket; it’s the total cost of launching SWOT overall. So some of that money is going to SpaceX while the rest is going to other organizations that will provide “additional support” needed to get SWOT into space. However, NASA declined to go into specifics about what that added support entails. “The specific launch service price is considered competition and procurement sensitive information,” NASA spokesperson Cheryl Warner said in a statement.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is still grounded from spaceflight after one of its Falcon 9 rockets exploded on a Florida launchpad in September. After months of investigation, CEO Elon Musk said the company finally figured out what caused the failure, noting it was the most complicated problem SpaceX has ever had to solve. Musk said they are targeting a return-to-flight mission before the end of the year, but an official launch date has yet to be announced.