MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — A SpaceX Falcon 9 placed a NASA Earth science satellite into orbit Feb. 8 on a launch that was the first of its kind for the U.S. government in more than 60 years.
A Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 at 1:33 a.m. Eastern after two days of delays caused by high winds. It placed into a sun-synchronous orbit NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem, or PACE, spacecraft.
PACE carries instruments to study both ocean color as a means to monitor biological activity like phytoplankton as well as clouds and aerosols in the atmosphere. The mission, developed at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland with a total cost including reserves of $964 million, is designed to last three years, although scientists anticipate it operating for at least a decade.
“In many ways, we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about our own oceans,” said Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth science division, at a Feb. 5 prelaunch briefing. “PACE will be the most advanced mission we’ve ever launched to study ocean biology.”
Scientists started planning for what would become PACE 20 years ago, said Jeremy Werdell, PACE project scientist, at a Feb. 4 briefing, with the mission under development for nine years. PACE had to overcome several attempts by the Trump administration to cancel the mission, cuts that were rejected each time by Congress.
“One of the reasons that we’re sitting here today is because there were many, many in our stakeholder community who understood the potential impact of PACE and supported us moving forward,” St. Germain said Feb. 4.
PACE was the first U.S. government mission to launch to a polar or sun-synchronous orbit from Florida since 1960, noted Tim Dunn, senior launch director at NASA’s Launch Services Program, at the Feb. 5 briefing. There were several such launches from the Cape in the early years of the space age, but those stopped after a November 1960 launch failure dropped debris on Cuba.
SpaceX won permission from the Eastern Range in 2020 to carry out Falcon 9 launches on southern trajectories to access polar orbits. Dunn credited SpaceX’s use of autonomous flight safety systems and the ability of the first stage to land on a droneship or back at the Cape to make launches to polar orbits feasible there. On the PACE launch, the booster landed back at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1.
SpaceX carried out 11 Falcon 9 launches to polar orbits from Cape Canaveral before PACE for other customers, including its own Transporter rideshare missions. “There is no question that this is a well-exercised process that we’re doing,” he said.
Most polar launches still take place from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, but Julianna Scheiman, director of civil satellite missions at SpaceX, said the PACE mission requested launching from Cape Canaveral instead. “The spacecraft team, being from Goddard, preferred to launch closer to their center,” she said Feb. 5. “Florida is much closer to Goddard than California, so here we are.”