NASA selects SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket to launch Roman Space Telescope

Artist’s illustration of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA announced Tuesday it awarded SpaceX a $255 million contract to launch the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, the agency’s next flagship astronomy mission, on a Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in 2026.

The Roman telescope will launch toward a gravitational balance point called L2 nearly a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth. Roman will orbit the L2 location in a halo orbit, similar to the trajectory flown by the James Webb Space Telescope, which launched last December and entered operational service earlier this month.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, the world’s most powerful launch vehicle currently in service, will give the Roman telescope a ride toward its deep space observation post.

NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy selected SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket for the task. The launch contract is valued at approximately $255 million, including “the launch service and other mission related costs,” NASA said.

Liftoff is currently targeted for October 2026 from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

Roman is NASA’s next large space telescope after Webb. While Webb is designed to peer deep into the cosmos with pointed observations, Roman is a surveyor with a large field of view capable of scanning large swaths of the sky.

The observations from Roman will help scientists study the nature of dark energy and dark matter, the enigmatic forces and materials that make up the majority of the universe. Roman will also search for and image planets around other stars.

The telescope’s primary mirror measures 7.9 feet (2.4 meters) in diameter, the same size as Hubble’s mirror. But Roman’s wide-field imaging capability will give it a field of view 100 times that of Hubble, with the same imaging resolution, allowing it to capture more of the sky with less observing time.

Roman’s primary mirror was donated to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office, which no longer needed the hardware for its classified spy satellite programs. The mirrors used for Earth-pointing spy satellites and scientific telescopes are similar in shape and function.

The Roman mission is projected to cost more than $4.3 billion, including development expenses, the launch, and five years of operations in space. The spacecraft is expected to weigh about 4.6 tons (4.2 metric tons) fully fueled for launch.

Formerly known as the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, the mission was named for Nancy Grace Roman in 2020. Roman, an astronomer, was a pioneer for women at NASA and became the agency’s chief of astronomy, a job that included responsibility for the early phases of development of the Hubble Space Telescope, causing some officials to namer her “the mother of Hubble.”

WFIRST, now named for Roman, was the highest priority science mission identified by the National Academies’ 2010 astrophysics decadal survey.

The Roman telescope will carry two instruments. The Wide Field instrument will collect images and spectroscopy data of distant galaxies, stars, and exoplanets. Astronomers expect the Wide Field Instrument to measure light from a billion galaxies and discover thousands of exoplanets during the Roman mission.

A Coronagraph Instrument is also flying on Roman as a technology demonstration, with the ability to blot out bright starlight to directly image planets and debris disks around nearby stars.

A Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on June 25, 2019. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

With the Roman launch contract in hand, SpaceX now has a backlog of up to 13 Falcon Heavy rocket missions. They include three missions for the U.S. Space Force slated to launch late this year and in 2023, the launch of of NASA’s Psyche asteroid probe in 2023, the launch of NASA’s Europa Clipper in 2024 to explore an icy moon of Jupiter, and the launch in 2024 of the first two elements for NASA’s planned Gateway mini-space station to orbit the moon.

NASA has also contracted with SpaceX for the Falcon Heavy to launch NOAA’s GOES-U geostationary weather satellite in 2024 and two commercial resupply missions to the Gateway later in the 2020s. The status of the contract for the Gateway logistics missions is not clear. It was signed in 2020, but NASA has not yet given SpaceX authority to proceed for preparations to begin for the Gateway resupply flights.

SpaceX has won contracts for two Falcon Heavy missions to launch large geostationary internet communications satellites for Viasat and EchoStar later this year and in 2023, respectively. And a Falcon Heavy rocket is slated to launch NASA’s VIPER robotic rover toward the moon in late 2024 on a commercial lunar delivery flight managed by Astrobotic.

SpaceX has launched three Falcon Heavy flights to date, but the Falcon Heavy hasn’t flown since June 2019.

The Falcon Heavy is powered by 27 Merlin main engines from three Falcon rocket cores connected together, generating 5.1 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

SpaceX is developing a larger payload fairing for future Falcon Heavy missions. The extended shroud is necessary to accommodate the launch of the Gateway station’s power, propulsion, and habitation modules, and some future Space Force missions.

But a NASA spokesperson said the Roman telescope can fit inside SpaceX’s standard Falcon Heavy payload fairing.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.