Xplore wins NOAA contract to study commercial solar observatory

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SAN FRANCISCO – Seattle startup Xplore won a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration award for a design study of a commercial solar observatory at Earth-Sun Lagrange Point 1.

NOAA awarded Xplore a contract May 27 valued at $670,112 for a six-month study to evaluate the feasibility of sending a commercial mission to L1 to provide early detection of solar events threatening the power grid and telecommunications satellites.

To date, only government spacecraft have flown to L1, including the NOAA Deep Space Climate Observatory, NASA Advanced Composition Explorer and NASA-European Space Agency Solar and Heliophysics Observatory.

“We’re investigating how a commercial capability to carry these instruments to L1 on a small satellite and provide the data would be more cost-effective,” Lisa Rich, Xplore founder and chief operating officer, told SpaceNews.

Xplore proposes hosting NOAA solar sensors on Xcraft, the company’s multi-mission ESPA-class spacecraft. ESPA is a secondary payload adapter.

“Xplore has exercised thought-leadership in the commercial missions it is developing beyond Earth orbit,” Joel Mozer, U.S. Space Force chief scientist, said in a statement. “Space weather monitoring has been a government-led activity for the last 50 years, but this is an area where innovative companies can play a key role. I am looking forward to the next era of advanced space weather capabilities coming from this partnership with Xplore.”

The NOAA award is the latest in a series of wins. Xplore, a firm founded in 2017, announced in April a U.S. Air Force Small Business Innovation Research contract and a role in a futuristic NASA mission. Under the Air Force contract, Xplore is studying how to establish a positioning, navigation and timing system for cislunar space.

Xplore also is a member of a team that won a $2 million NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts award for an exoplanet mission called Solar Gravity Lens Focus (SGLF). Under the award announced in April, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Aerospace Corp. and Xplore propose sending small spacecraft 80 billion kilometers from Earth, “where the Sun’s gravity acts like a magnifying lens to the background sky,” according to Xplore’s April 28 news release.

Like the NOAA study, the cislunar architecture and SGLF mission would be built around Xcraft, a modular satellite designed to operate “in any environment from Earth orbit to the Moon, Mars, Venus and Lagrange points,” Rich said. “In our view, frequent low-cost missions to space require the industry to evolve beyond traditional bespoke spacecraft.”

NOAA is issuing a series of study contracts to investigate potential instruments, spacecraft, business models and mission concepts for the space-based architecture to succeed the Joint Polar Satellite System and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R series.