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SpaceX’s three-core Falcon Heavy rocket will launch a new NASA space telescope from Florida in the coming years, the agency said in this week’s announcement of the $255 million contract.
The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, named after the first woman to hold an executive position at NASA, is slated to fly from Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39A no earlier than October 2026. The roughly $255 million price tag includes launch-related costs; the telescope itself is expected to run up a tab between $3 and $4 billion.
So far, the Space Coast has hosted three Falcon Heavy launches since the triple-core rocket debuted in February 2018. It’s a slower pace than expected for SpaceX’s first heavy-lift vehicle that typically includes side boosters landing at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, but at least a dozen more are planned through 2026.
With an eight-foot primary mirror, Roman sits on the smaller end of the modern telescope spectrum. The recently launched James Webb Space Telescope, for example, has a 21-foot primary mirror but also works a different kind of mission. Roman will use a much wider field-of-view to dig into dark energy, exoplanet, and astrophysics investigations.
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Roman’s wider field-of-view also means it can observe areas much faster than the Hubble Space Telescope, for example, which could take years to collect images of the same areas due to its “zoom level” on the universe. With all three major telescopes – Hubble, Webb, and Roman – in play after 2026, NASA says future observations will be able to leverage the advantages of all three.
“WFIRST’s surveys don’t require that we know exactly where and when to look to make exciting discoveries,” Julie McEnery, the Roman Space Telescope’s senior scientist, said in a NASA technical document. “The mission will turn on the floodlights so we can explore the universe in a whole new way.”
The telescope was previously known as the Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, but was renamed in honor of Roman and her astronomical work at NASA. She played key roles in the deployment of other space telescopes like Hubble, for example.
SpaceX’s selection for the contract continues to push its manifest – past and present – beyond just communications satellites. The company has been selected for national security missions like GPS, delivering Artemis program payloads to the moon for NASA ahead of astronauts arriving on the surface, and now multibillion-dollar science investigations like the Roman telescope.
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Contact Emre Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 321-242-3715. Follow him on TwitterFacebook and Instagram at @EmreKelly.