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Rocket Lab to launch NASA’s PREFIRE mission

Rocket Lab
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Rocket Lab has secured a significant contract with NASA, scheduled to launch a pair of cubesats in 2024. These cubesats will be deployed to closely monitor the intricate energy dynamics of the Earth’s polar regions. The contract, awarded through NASA’s Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) program, marks a significant stride for Rocket Lab.

The VADR contract specifics remain confidential, as is customary for awards within this closed competitive environment. While the announcement leaves several details open-ended, including the launch vehicle, precise launch dates, and the number of launches for the PREFIRE satellites, Rocket Lab has since illuminated the situation. According to a subsequent communication, the two satellites are set to be launched individually on Electron rockets, taking off from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand come May 2024.

Although the exact value of the PREFIRE task order from Rocket Lab remains undisclosed, the company did reveal that it aims to price the Electron launch at around $7.5 million in the ongoing year. This serves as a point of reference, given that an earlier VADR task order involving two Electron launches carrying TROPICS storm-monitoring cubesats commanded a value of $12.99 million.

A critical aspect of the mission lies in its stringent requirements, which demand dedicated Electron launches for precise orbital positioning at an altitude of 525 kilometers in circular polar orbits. The orbital parameter known as local time of the ascending node (LTAN) adds another layer of complexity to the endeavor. Furthermore, the simultaneous launch of both satellites is crucial for the PREFIRE mission, a feat previously demonstrated with the TROPICS launches taking place within a span of just over two weeks in May.

The cubesats’ mission centers on measuring the intricate flux of energy entering and departing Earth, particularly within the polar regions where data is sparse. Equipped with specialized far-infrared spectrometers derived from instruments employed on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, these spacecraft will detect infrared fluxes within the range of 5 to 54 microns.

The significance of this venture cannot be overstated. The mission’s main objective is to offer the inaugural measurements of far infrared (FIR) emissions, specifically those surpassing 15 microns—a facet that constitutes a substantial portion of energy emitted from polar locales. This venture, collectively dubbed the PREFIRE mission, seeks to bridge critical gaps in our comprehension, unraveling the intricacies of the Arctic energy balance and the intricate role played by FIR radiation in processes like Arctic warming, ice sheet dissipation, sea ice depletion, and the consequential rise in sea levels.

Originally selected by NASA in 2018 as part of the esteemed Earth Venture initiative, the PREFIRE mission bears an estimated cost of approximately $33 million. Steering this scientific ship is NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, spearheaded by principal investigator Tristan L’Ecuyer from the University of Wisconsin. This venture aligns seamlessly with NASA’s broader mission, continuing to unlock the mysteries of our planet’s dynamic systems.

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