DART Didymos
SpaceX will launch NASA's DART mission, which will fly to the near Earth asteroid Didymos and collide with its small moon as a planetary defense demonstration. Credit: JHUAPL

DENVER — SpaceX will launch a NASA mission to test an asteroid deflection technique at a significantly lower price than past agency contracts won by the company.

NASA said April 11 it awarded SpaceX a contract to launch the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) on a Falcon 9 in June 2021 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The total cost to NASA for the mission, including the launch and related services, is $69 million.

DART is a mission under development at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory as part of NASA’s planetary defense program. The spacecraft will use an electric propulsion system to travel to the asteroid Didymos. DART will collide with a small moon orbiting Didymos, sometimes nicknamed Didymoon, at a speed of six kilometers per second.

Astronomers will measure the change in the moon’s orbit around Didymos as a result of the impact to measure how well the energy of the impact was transferred to the moon. That will help scientists gauge the effectiveness of the “kinetic impactor” approach proposed as one means of deflecting an asteroid on a collision course with the Earth.

DART originally planned to launch as a rideshare on the commercial launch of a geostationary orbit satellite. The mission switched several months ago to a dedicated launch. NASA did not disclose if DART, which weighs about 500 kilograms, will share the launch vehicle with another spacecraft.

The $69 million launch price is significantly lower than past NASA contracts for Falcon 9 launches. NASA awarded SpaceX a contract for the Sentinel-6A satellite in October 2017 for a November 2020 launch on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg at a total cost of $97 million. The Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite will launch on a Falcon 9 in April 2021 under a contract awarded in November 2016 at a value of $112 million.

“SpaceX is proud to continue our successful partnership with NASA in support of this important interplanetary mission,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in a company statement. “This award underscores NASA’s confidence in Falcon 9’s capability to perform critical science missions while providing the best launch value in the industry.”

The award of the DART contract to SpaceX comes a week after the company dropped its protest of another NASA launch contract awarded earlier this year to United Launch Alliance for the Lucy mission. SpaceX had claimed, when it filed the protest in February, that it could launch the mission at a significantly lower cost than ULA’s Atlas 5.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...