Six NASA satellite builders were awarded $500,000 study contracts to suggest ways the U.S. space agency could save money when it orders the spacecraft needed to conduct the slate of Earth science missions spelled out in the National Research Council’s 2007 decadal survey, according to an April 2 announcement on NASA’s procurement Web site.

The companies selected for the four-month studies are: Ball Aerospace & Technologies, Boulder, Colo.; Boeing Phantom Works, Huntington Beach, Calif.; General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems, Gilbert, Ariz.; Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver; Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, Redondo Beach, Calif.; and Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, Va.

General Dynamics’ satellite business is now part of Orbital Sciences under an acquisition that closed April 2.

NASA solicited the study proposals back in September, saying the objective of the four-month studies was “to develop a design concept for a common spacecraft bus to accommodate” several of the near-term decadal survey missions, a list that includes the two-spacecraft Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory and Deformation, Ecosystem Structure and the Dynamics of Ice missions as well as IceSat-2 and the Soil Moisture Active & Passive mission.

Stephen Volz, associate director for flight programs in NASA’s Earth Science Division, said the studies will look beyond those four near-term missions to a slate of midterm missions that includes the Aerosol-Cloud-Ecosystems mission, the Active Sensing of CO2 Emissions over Nights, Days, and Seasons mission, the Geostationary Coastal and Air Pollution Events mission and the Surface Water Ocean Topography mission.

“Our flight rate is going to go up, which means we have the opportunity to plan … several missions instead of one at a time,” Volz said April 8.

The higher flight rate NASA anticipates is the result of President Barack Obama’s proposal to increase the agency’s Earth science budget by $1.8 billion over the next four years.

Volz said one of the ways NASA could “economize the implementation of the spacecraft for these missions” would be to “bulk buy” the spacecraft platforms.

“For example, we know we have three lidar missions in the pipeline [and] two radar missions,” Volz said. “So to the degree we have missions of similar physical and measurement type, are there common approaches we should take in our spacecraft design or, on the other side, are there common things we should dictate to our instrument providers so the spacecraft accommodations are more easily met?”

Volz said the study contracts NASA just awarded will help the agency answer those and other questions.

The studies are expected to wrap up this summer.