WASHINGTON — Orbital Sciences Corp. got a four-year, $75 million contract to build a small astrophysics spacecraft, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), for NASA, the Dulles, Va., company said in an April 24 press release.

The TESS spacecraft will be built in Dulles on Orbital’s LEOStar-2 spacecraft bus, a platform with a nominal five-year design life. LEOStar-2 spacecraft can weigh between 150 kilograms and 500 kilograms when fully fueled. Several small NASA science missions were built on this platform, including the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array X-ray observatory Orbital launched last summer, and the Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment Sun observatory that launched in 2003 and is still in operation.

TESS is an exoplanet-hunting telescope similar to the Kepler space telescope that launched in 2009. It is one of two Astrophysics Small Explorer missions NASA selected earlier this month for funding. The observatory’s principal investigator is George Ricker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Costs are capped at $200 million.

The other Small Explorer mission NASA picked April 5 is an X-ray observatory called the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer. This observatory will be hosted aboard the international space station and observe superdense neutron stars. The principal investigator for the $55 million mission is Keith Gendreau of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.



NASA Selects Pair of Astrophysics Missions

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...