Mars 2020
NASA artist's concept of Mars 2020 rover. Credit: NASA

United Launch Alliance, as expected, has won a contract to launch NASA’s next Mars rover.

NASA announced Thursday it awarded the contract for the launch of the Mars 2020 rover to ULA, who will use an Atlas 5 541 to send the spacecraft to Mars.

The contract is valued at $243 million. Mars 2020 is based on the Curiosity Mars rover, launched in 2011 on the same version of the Atlas. [Florida Today]

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A Dragon cargo spacecraft is on its way back to Earth after departing the International Space Station this morning. The station’s robotic arm released the Dragon at 6:11 a.m. Eastern after spending more than a month at the station. Dragon is scheduled splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California at 11:47 a.m. Eastern today. Dragon is carrying more than 1,300 kilograms of experiments and other equipment to return to Earth. [AP]

The Air Force has awarded contracts worth $110 million to demonstrate secure military communications using other military and commercial satellites. The demonstration contracts, awarded earlier this month to Raytheon, L-3 and ViaSat, will test the use of the protected tactical waveform with new modems, and using both commercial satellites and the Wideband Global Satcom spacecraft. The technology is expected to help the Air Force deal with the growing problem of jamming of satellite communications signals. [SpaceNews]

NASA is wrapping up a series of splashdown tests of the Orion spacecraft. A full-sized replica of the Orion capsule was dropped into a water tank at the Langley Research Center Thursday, a test designed to simulate an Orion splashdown after one of its three main parachutes failed to deploy. Engineers said the tests have validated computer simulations of the loads on the spacecraft during splashdown. A tenth and final splashdown test is planned for the next couple of weeks. [Daily Press]

The first Long March 5, China’s new heavy-lift launch vehicle, is on its way to its launch site. Two ships left a Chinese port this week carrying the Long March 5 components, bound for the new Wenchang spaceport on the island of Hainan. The launch of that rocket, China’s largest yet and comparable in performance to the Delta 4 Heavy, is scheduled for early November. [gbtimes]

Japan will launch Kenya’s first satellite from the ISS next year under a UN-sponsored agreement. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs said Thursday that the Japanese space agency JAXA has selected a satellite being developed at the University of Nairobi for a free launch from the station. The satellite, called the 1st Kenyan University Nano Satellite Precursor Flight, is a cubesat that will test technology for a future Earth observation mission. [Kyodo]

A relatively-nearby galaxy is made almost entirely of dark matter. Astronomers said that Dragonfly 44, a dim galaxy discovered just last year, has only about one percent of the stars found in the Milky Way. The stars in the galaxy, though, are moving around the center much faster than expected, as if the galaxy was far more massive. That led astronomers to conclude that as much as 99.99 percent of the galaxy’s mass is unseen dark matter, whose nature remains a mystery. [Science]

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...