On Friday NASA closed the bidding process to select a launch vehicle for an upcoming Earth science mission to measure changes in sea level, Sentinel-6B. The mission is expected to launch into low Earth orbit about four years from now, and the space agency is finalizing its choice of a rocket.
Such bidding processes are secretive to protect the competitive interests of the bidders in terms of prices and capabilities. However, realistically, there is no mystery about who will win the Sentinel-6B contract. Like the spacecraft’s twin, Sentinel-6A, we can expect this mission to launch on a Falcon 9 rocket sometime in 2026.
This is because, at present, there are no other bidders for NASA’s medium and large science missions beyond SpaceX and its fleet of Falcon rockets.
Bid is “withdrawn”
In response to questions about this lack of competition for its science missions, including Sentinel-6B, NASA declined to provide answers to questions from Ars. Rather, spokesperson Leejay Lockhart issued the following statement, “NASA is not able to share the number of bids or waiver request information as they are considered competition sensitive.”
However, it seems likely that at least the last three awards under NASA’s Launch Services II contract have all seen SpaceX bidding against itself. United Launch Alliance chief executive Tory Bruno confirmed this himself after NASA’s announcement in September 2021 that the GOES-U satellite would launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket. Bruno said his company had “withdrawn” its bid after all of its Atlas V rockets were sold out.
A source confirmed that United Launch Alliance also did not bid on the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope launch, which NASA announced in July 2022 it had awarded to SpaceX, nor the Sentinel-6B contract, for which bidding closed on September 30.
This lack of competition harkens back to the period from 2005 to 2015, when NASA was largely reliant on United Launch Alliance, and its Delta and Atlas rockets, for getting its science missions into space. SpaceX broke this monopoly when it launched the Jason-3 mission for NASA and NOAA in January 2016. Partly in response to this competition, and partly due to a desire to end its reliance on Russian rocket engines, United Launch Alliance is ending production of both its Atlas and Delta rockets in favor of what it intends to be a more cost-competitive, American-made rocket, Vulcan.