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 — 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. 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.

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 (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, 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 a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: