Editorial: Dscovr Competition

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Every so often there arises an opportunity to accomplish two seemingly unrelated objectives for a relatively modest investment.

U.S. Senate appropriators have identified just such an opportunity in calling on the U.S. Defense Department to consider funding the launch of a space weather monitoring satellite aboard a rocket that has yet to be qualified to launch high-priority military or scientific satellites. Doing so would help bring more competition to the U.S. government satellite launch market while backing up an important early warning system for potentially disruptive or even damaging solar storms.

The satellite that could serve both purposes is the Deep Space Climate Observatory (Dscovr), which utilizes hardware left over from a NASA Earth observing satellite dubbed Triana that never got off the ground. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration seeks to modify the platform to carry a sun-watching sensor, but House appropriators are decidedly cool to the project.

Members of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, however, see in Dscovr an opportunity to start the process of breaking the virtual monopoly on Pentagon launch business held by United Launch Alliance (ULA), the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that builds and operates the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets. Startup Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corp. both have vehicles well into development that in theory could compete for Pentagon business, at least at the small end of the operational payload spectrum. SpaceX has conducted two successful launches of its medium-lift Falcon 9 and is working on a larger rocket aimed specifically at the U.S. military market.

The U.S. Defense Department has seen its launch costs grow significantly in recent years due to factors including low Atlas 5 and Delta 4 production rates and higher propulsion costs owing to the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle. ULA says costs can be contained without compromising rocket reliability by stabilizing production through vehicle block buys, but many on Capitol Hill and elsewhere believe competition is a better answer.

The U.S. Air Force seems to agree but it’s in a tough position: Given the small market size and extremely tight budgets, nurturing a new entrant likely would come at the expense of its effort to stabilize production at ULA, on which the service relies to launch critical national security satellites with price tags that often top $1 billion. A related challenge is the Air Force’s justifiable reluctance to entrust its satellites to rockets with short track records, which makes it difficult for prospective new entrants to prove themselves.

The recently announced agreement between the Air Force, NASA and the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office to coordinate policies and standards for bringing new vehicles into the marketplace is a step in the right direction. The underlying principle is that a rocket’s eligibility to launch high-priority payloads, civil or military, is proportional to its success rate over a given number of missions. The Falcon 9 and Orbital’s Taurus 2 rockets have solid backlogs of commercial NASA business for international space station resupply, and those missions should count — for better or worse — in assessing the vehicles for launching operational Pentagon satellites.

Dscovr, meanwhile, represents a relatively near-term opportunity to integrate and launch a free-flying satellite. Orbital and SpaceX could offer low introductory prices in exchange for a chance at more business down the road.

This is not to say Dscovr isn’t important in its own right. Today the government relies on NASA’s Advance Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite, operating at the L1 libration point, to provide advance warning of solar flares and related events that can disrupt satellites in orbit and sensitive electronics on the ground. But ACE was launched in 1997; although it has sufficient fuel to continue operating until 2024, it is not clear how long the satellite’s instruments will last.

Prudence dictates getting a backup satellite ready for launch as soon as feasible. Dscovr has a history that might not work in its favor: Triana was a mission of questionable scientific merit conceived in the 1990s by then-Vice President Al Gore, and as such encountered stiff Republican opposition. But that’s all in the past — space weather observation is a completely different mission that, unlike Earth observation, does not stir political sentiments.

In fact, it could be argued that Dscovr is important enough that it should be funded and launched aboard a proven ULA rocket, perhaps one of the five Delta 2 rockets remaining in the company’s inventory. But if the government needs a little extra incentive to get the satellite off the ground, it has it in the likely price and prospect of competition offered by Falcon 9 and Taurus 2.