NASA taps SpaceX to launch PACE satellite to study Earth's oceans, climate change

SpaceX has won a NASA contract to launch an Earth science satellite that has fended off cancellation from the Trump administration three separate times.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will loft the PACE satellite (its name is short for Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem) ) spacecraft into orbit in December 2022, NASA announced. The launch will take place from Cape Canaveral, Florida using a Falcon 9 whose first stage has launched at least one mission in the past.

"SpaceX is honored to continue supporting NASA's critical scientific observational missions by launching PACE, which will help humanity better understand, protect and preserve our planet," Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's president and chief operating officer, said in a company statement.

It's been a long road to get PACE ready for launch. 

The Trump administration tried to cancel the ocean-watching mission in budget proposals for 2018, 2019 and 2020 to save money. But PACE — which was named one of the top priorities in the National Research Council's 2007 Earth science decadal survey (opens in new tab) — has persisted. In all three cases, Congress voted to include additional funds to support the mission. 

Most recently, in December 2019, Congress authorized $131 million for PACE in fiscal 2020, according to SpaceNews (opens in new tab). NASA's overall fiscal budget for 2020 is $22.629 billion, a five percent increase over 2019. NASA's budget in 2020 represents approximately 0.48% of all U.S. government spending, according to the Planetary Society (opens in new tab).

PACE focuses on examining the oceans, clouds and aerosols (small air particles) of Earth. This will allow the mission to figure out the diversity of phytoplankton, which are tiny plant-like organisms in the ocean that are the base of the food chain. These organisms are at the base of the food chain and can help scientists understand how climate change is affecting the environment and Earth's species.

PACE will orbit Earth at about 1.5 times the altitude of the International Space Station; the science mission will be at about 420 miles (675 kilometers), while the space station's orbit is typically 250 miles (400 km) in altitude.

The top tool of PACE is the Ocean Color Instrument, which continues work from previous ocean-color studies. PACE will examine the ocean's color in wavelengths ranging from long ultraviolet to short infrared, NASA says. Since PACE will be in a sun-synchronous orbit, this will allow for consistent daylight conditions for imaging – making it easier to compare different regions, or the same region over long periods. 

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: