NASA abandons Earth science instrument flight plans as commercial payload

WASHINGTON – A device for Earth sciences, chosen by NASA a few years ago for flights as a hosted payload on a commercial communications satellite, could instead be flown on a stand-alone spacecraft due to lack of placement capabilities.

NASA released a petition on February 9 asking for information on what is being called GeoCarb Access to Space project. NASA is looking for information on potential suppliers of spacecraft that could host the GeoCarb launch tool that NASA will provide by the end of 2024.

NASA selected GeoCarb in 2016 as part of the Earth Venture line of missions and tools. GeoCarb will monitor greenhouse gases as well as plant health and vegetation stress in North and South America from about 85 degrees west in geostationary orbit.

The agency’s original plan was to use GeoCarb as a hosted payload on GEO’s commercial communications satellite. For a while, NASA has agreed with SES Government Solutions to host GeoCarb on the SES satellite.

The draft working document included in the application indicates that NASA no longer plans to use GeoCarb as a hosted payload. The document mentions a spacecraft that will represent a contractor who can host the device and operate it for at least three years at GEO. NASA will provide launch services through its new venture class contract for the purchase of dedicated services and Rideshare services (VADR). For the traditional placed payload, NASA will not provide launch services, as this will be the responsibility of the commercial satellite operator.

NASA spokesman Taylor Green confirmed on February 16 that the agency no longer plans to use GeoCarb as a hosted payload. “In order to launch this important tool for Earth observation by the end of 2024, market research has shown that there are no obvious options for commercial hosting at this time,” Green told SpaceNews. “As a result, NASA is looking for ways that include purchasing a spacecraft and launching GeoCarb.”

The decision to look for alternative space travel for GeoCarb reflects a reduction in the state of located payloads. NASA and other U.S. government agencies began to seriously address deployed payloads more than a decade ago, seeing what at the time was a steady stream of commercial GEO communications satellites that could serve as low-cost payload platforms.

However, in recent years, there has been a sharp drop in commercial orders for the GEO satellite, which has reduced the availability of payloads such as GeoCarb. In addition, GeoCarb must be located on a satellite in a relatively narrow band in GEO to see America, which further limits the location.

At the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society on January 24, Charles Webb, deputy director of flight programs for NASA’s Earth Sciences Division, acknowledged that the agency had trouble finding a host for GeoCarb due to changes in the GEO commercial satellite communications market.

“As a result, some of the capabilities we saw in the time it took to bring GeoCarb into orbit have disappeared,” Webb said. “The problem we are facing is the limited number of opportunities to ride with a commercial load.”

However, he added that another payload of NASA, which deals with Earth science, a pollution monitoring sensor called TEMPO, was able to find a commercial satellite, the Intelsat 40e spacecraft, built by Maxar Technologies for launch in January 2023. NASA abandons Earth science instrument flight plans as commercial payload

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