WASHINGTON — NASA is developing an updated rideshare policy for science missions that reflects both new launch opportunities and the challenges faced in accommodating secondary payloads.
In a presentation at a meeting last month of the National Academies Committee on Solar and Space Physics, Aly Mendoza-Hill, head of the rideshare office in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said an update update of a carpooling policy for scientific missions should be updated. released in 2024.
This policy dates back to 2018, when Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science, announced that the agency would use excess capacity during science mission launches to carry small secondary payloads. NASA created a rideshare office to coordinate these opportunities in 2020.
This “very important” update, she said, would include additional ride-sharing opportunities. The original policy involved excess capacity during NASA science mission launches, but the new one will include the Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) contract vehicle as well as other options, such as rideshare launches on Artemis missions from NASA and other governments. agencies.
“The policy really covers responsibilities and costs,” she said. “Each model of this type of ride sharing is different.”
The current policy has been used to enable the launch of several science and technology demonstration missions. The Atlas 5 launch of the JPSS-2 weather satellite in 2022 included as rideshare payload LOFTID, a NASA technology demonstration of an inflatable heat shield.
The launch of NASA’s Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) spacecraft on a Falcon 9, scheduled for February 2025, will include NOAA’s Space Weather Follow-On spacecraft and NASA’s Carruthers Geocorona Observatory, a mission heliophysics initially named GLIDE. Another Falcon 9 launch in early 2025 will launch the SPHEREx astrophysics mission as the primary payload with another heliophysics mission, PUNCH, flying as a secondary payload.
This approach has encountered some difficulties. At one point, IMAP was scheduled to carry four rideshare payloads. One of them, NASA’s Solar Cruiser mission, has not been confirmed for development. The other, the Lunar Trailblazer spacecraft, left IMAP to avoid what appeared at the time to be a two-year delay in its launch, with NASA instead acquiring a secondary payload slot on IM-2, the second lunar lander from Intuitive Machines. assignment.
Mendoza-Hill suggested that decision could have backfired on the mission. “They might launch before IMAP, maybe not,” she said. “They are now launching only six months (earlier). It was initially two years earlier.
Lunar Trailblazer was one of three missions selected by NASA’s Planetary Science Division under a program called SIMPLEx that planned to use rideshare missions. The other two, ESCAPADE and Janus, initially manifested as secondary during the launch of the Psyche mission. However, a change in mission trajectories led NASA to scrap ESCAPADE while Psyche’s 14-month launch delay prevented Janus from carrying out its planned mission.
NASA then acquired a launch for ESCAPADE on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket under the VADR contract. This launch, scheduled for the end of 2024, will be the first flight of this rocket. The agency, however, effectively canceled the Janus mission in July, placing the spacecraft in long-term storage.
The unique requirements of NASA science missions, even small satellite missions, can make finding suitable rideshare opportunities difficult. “All our missions are different. They have unique trajectories. They all have different science,” she said. This excludes the use of launches like SpaceX’s Transporter series, which launch spacecraft into a sun-synchronous orbit, or its new Bandwagon line of mid-incline rideshare launches.
The emergence of orbital transfer vehicles, or tugs, could remove some of these constraints, but she argued that these vehicles are not yet mature enough. “They’re just not there, technology-wise. I hope they will be there because it would open up a lot more opportunities for small satellites,” she said.
NASA is currently recruiting new suppliers for the VADR contract, and Mendoza-Hill said she believes this will include new orbital transfer vehicles, like Blue Origin’s Blue Ring tug that the company publicly announced in October.
She discussed other ridesharing challenges at the meeting, such as coupled load analyzes that are necessary to ensure that adding secondary payloads does not affect the primary payload during launch. Rideshare payloads also require a greater degree of mission assurance to avoid impacting the principal.
“Small missions may need to spend a little more money on mission insurance to take advantage of carpooling and support higher mission insurance launches,” she said. “It’s not free, but it’s still worth the cost of finding a launch.”