In another indication of the increasing importance of the new commercial space industry's importance, NASA's just selected Orbital Sciences to launch its first satellite dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide.
The OCO-2 (Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2) satellite is due to be lofted into space in 2013 by an Orbital managed launch from California's Vandenburg Air Force base. It'll fly on top of a Taurus XL 3110 rocket, which is a four-stage solid-fueled system (a little like the Space Shuttle's solid boosters) that's based on Orbital's earlier successful Pegasus air-launch rockets. The vehicle's first stage is actually made by Thiokol using a design based on the Peacekeeper ICBM missile technology. It was first launched in 1994, and has had two failures--one of which destroyed the OCO-1 satellite in 2009.
NASA will be spending about $70 million on Orbital to get this satellite into space, including covering for the cost of the rocket, payload processing, rocket integration, and support for the mission, including telemetry and tracking. The fact that NASA's backing Orbital again, despite the failure of the earlier attempt to get an OCO unit into space, shows how much confidence the agency has in Orbital's technology--which must also be at a good price compared to its competition.
When it gets to space the satellite will be the very first NASA-sourced investigation into how atmospheric carbon dioxide is both added to and removed from the atmosphere, and will thus inform the debate about the effects of human-sourced CO2 as regards climate change.
Orbital is already a successful enterprise, and this decision by NASA reinforces that--it also aligns with President Obama's somewhat controversial push to increase commercial space operations in the U.S. The company has already benefited from an Obama-led decision to supply the International Space Station using non-NASA rockets in the interim period after the Space Shuttle's retirement: Along with SpaceX, Orbital has been rewarded with $1.9 billion to deliver cargo to the ISS between 2010 and 2016.