Elon Musk’s SpaceX has won a $US152.5 ($207) million U.S. federal contract to launch an important new weather satellite into space.
On Friday, NASA announced that it had chosen the firm’s Falcon Heavy heavy-lift launch rocket to transport the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-U (GOES-U) into geostationary orbit tens of thousands of miles into space. Once it’s up there, the satellite will collect images and atmospheric measurements of weather, oceans, and environmental systems, map out lightning in real time, and improve monitoring for solar activity and space weather.
GOES-U’s launch will mark the fourth and final satellite of the GOES-R series, the first of which was launched in 2016. A collaboration between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it’s the most advanced fleet of weather satellites the U.S. runs, providing an unparalleled look at Earth. While they’re on the ground, the satellites are known by letters. Once in orbit, though, they’ll take on a numbered name. (GOES-U will be the nineteenth GOES satellite and presumably be GOES-19.)
The launch, which is scheduled to take place in April 2024 from Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre, is a big win for SpaceX. It comes after competing spacecraft launch service provider United Launch Alliance withdrew its bid. In 2019, ULA was awarded a smaller contract to launch the third satellite in GOES-R series known as GOES-T (yes, it’s a lot of GOES), and will do so in January 2022. But the company said it did not have any appropriate vehicles available for the fourth mission, opening the door for SpaceX to step in.
Missions like these are important opportunities to learn more about both Earth and space. The new GOES satellite, for instance, is expected to improve weather forecasting at a time when extreme weather is becoming all the more common and erratic, meaning it could actually save lives. Less important but still cool is that it will also provide gorgeous images of our planet.
SpaceX has been racking up contracts for Falcon Heavy. In July, NASA chose the firm to send the Falcon Heavy rocket to one of Jupiter’s moons to look for signs of aquatic alien life, and in April, NASA contractor Astrobiotic also picked the firm to send a NASA lunar lander to the moon’s yet-unexplored south pole in late 2023. The firm makes boatloads of money from these contracts, which gives Musk, a man already known for screwed-up labour practices, more power. While putting a satellite in space for HD weather observations is undoubtedly cool, perhaps there’s a more democratic way to get future ones up there.