Rocket Lab to launch pair of NASA Earth science cubesats - M5 Dergi
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Rocket Lab to launch pair of NASA Earth science cubesats

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NASA selected Rocket Lab to launch a pair of cubesats in 2024 to monitor energy entering and exiting the polar regions of the planet.

NASA announced Aug. 14 it awarded a task order through its Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) contract to Rocket Lab for the launch of two 6U cubesats for the Polar Radiant Energy in the Far-InfraRed Experiment, or PREFIRE mission.

The NASA announcement did not disclose the value of the task order. The agency stated in past awards done under VADR that the pricing is considered “proprietary” because the awards are competed in a closed environment, with only companies on the VADR contract eligible to bid on launches of taxpayer-funded missions.

The announcement, though, was extraordinarily vague for even a VADR task order. It did not disclose the launch vehicle, number of launches or launch dates for the PREFIRE satellites. A separate announcement by Rocket Lab did state that the two satellites will be launched individually on Electron rockets from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand in May 2024.

Rocket Lab did not disclose the value of the PREFIRE task order. However, the company said in an Aug. 8 earnings call that it had a target selling price for the Electron of $7.5 million this year. An earlier task order under VADR for two Electron launches of the TROPICS storm-monitoring cubesats had a value of $12.99 million, according to procurement databases.

The company said that the requirements of the mission, including placement in 525-kilometer circular polar orbits with specific values for an orbital parameter known as local time of the ascending node, or LTAN, required dedicated Electron launches. Both satellites must also be launched closely together to carry out the mission, which the company demonstrated with the TROPICS launches a little more than two weeks apart in May.

The two cubesats will measure energy entering and exiting the Earth, particularly in the polar regions where there is limited data. Each spacecraft carries a far-infrared spectrometer, derived from an instrument flown on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, to measure infrared fluxes between 5 and 54 microns.

The mission’s website notes that the cubesats will provide the first measurements of far infrared (FIR) emissions, at wavelengths longer than 15 microns, which constitute the majority of energy emitted from polar regions. “It fills a major gap in our knowledge of the Arctic energy budget and the role of FIR radiation in Arctic warming, sea ice loss, ice sheet melt, and sea level rise,” it states.

NASA selected PREFIRE in 2018 as part of its Earth Venture line of missions and instruments, with an estimated cost of $33 million. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is handling project management and instrument development for the mission, with Tristan L’Ecuyer of the University of Wisconsin serving as principal investigator.

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