On the heels of what will likely be NASA’s most significant telescope launch for at least a decade, the space agency appears to be about to select the launch provider for its next most expensive space telescope – a contract that SpaceX seems all but guaranteed to win.
Tory Bruno, CEO of the United Launch Alliance (ULA), revealed on February 15th that SpaceX’s chief competitor won’t even attempt to compete for the contract to launch NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (NGRST; formerly the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope or WFIRST). Named after Nancy Roman, who played a foundational role in the creation and launch of NASA’s famous Hubble Space Telescope, the Roman Space Telescope could potentially be the second most expensive NASA spacecraft launched this decade.
WFIRST was made possible when the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) chose to donate one of two Hubble-class spy telescopes it had merely sitting around and gathering dust to NASA in the mid-2010s. From a mechanical perspective, the telescope will be very similar to Hubble. However, in the decades since HST’s launch, electronics and sensor technology have dramatically improved, allowing NASA to pack instruments capable of simultaneously imaging 100 times the field of view HST is capable of into a similar package.
Additionally, instead of the Hubble’s primary focus on ultraviolet and visible wavelengths, the Roman Space Telescope will observe in infrared wavelengths, making it a perfect complement to the brand-new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is also exclusively focused on the infrared spectrum. Combined, they could operate hand in hand, with NGRST acting like a surveyor or scout and JWST enabling a much closer look at noteworthy discoveries. Additionally, thanks to the inclusion of an unprecedentedly capable in-space coronagraph instrument, NGRST will be able to block out the light of stars, making it a game-changing tool for exoplanet discovery – exoplanets that JWST may then be able to image in even more detail with its much larger mirror.
The telescope must first be built and then make it to orbit, however. Expected to weigh at least 4.2 tons (~9250 lb) and designed to operate at the L2 Sun-Earth Lagrange point hundreds of thousands of miles from our planet, only large American rockets are an option for the $4.3 billion Roman Space Telescope’s launch. After a recent delay, that launch has slipped to no later than May 2027. However, NASA appeared to be in the final stages of selecting a launch provider as of late last month [PDF], meaning that the space agency may not be able to take advantage of potential launch options planned to debut over the next few years.
That includes Blue Origin’s New Glenn and Relativity Space’s Terran R. However, even ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket appears to have been precluded due to rules that generally mean that only rockets certified for NASA launches today can be awarded a contract to launch a high-value spacecraft. As such, while there is a good chance that one or all of the above rockets will have launched repeatedly and potentially achieved NASA LSP certification by 2027, they have little hope of winning a 2022 competition for a 2027 launch when facing a competitor with a rocket that’s already certified.
In this case, that competitor is SpaceX, whose Falcon Heavy rocket is certified for even the most risk-averse NASA LSP (Launch Service Program) missions. In just the last two years, SpaceX has won contracts to launch NASA’s Psyche asteroid explorer (Aug 2022), VIPER Moon rover (Q4 2023), GOES-U weather satellite (Q2 2024), Europa Clipper (Q4 2024), and the PPE and HALO modules of the Gateway lunar space station (Q4 2024). In fact, because ULA has already promised all of its remaining Delta IV Heavy and Atlas V rockets and because ULA’s Vulcan and Blue Origin’s New Glenn have yet to launch at all, SpaceX is actually the only US launch provider with rockets that are both available for future NASA launches and certified to launch and compete for them.
For some upcoming missions, it’s possible that NASA will wait much closer to the launch date in order to ensure a more competitive environment, but that’s not always possible if the design of an exceptionally sensitive payload (like a large space telescope) must be optimized for a specific vehicle. In the case of the Roman Space Telescope, that means that without a major departure from established rules and norms, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket is all but guaranteed to win the contract to launch it.