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SpaceX Selected for PACE Launch to SSO from Cape Canaveral

NASA has selected SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, to provide launch services for the agency’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission.

The total cost for NASA to launch PACE is approximately $80.4 million, which includes the launch service and other mission related costs. The PACE mission currently is targeted to launch in December 2022 on a Falcon 9 Full Thrust rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Nice win for SpaceX, but the most interesting part is that PACE is going to sun-synchronous orbit from Cape Canaveral rather than Vandenberg. SpaceX will be trying out this long-unused launch profile next month for the launch of SAOCOM-1B.

The decision to fly SAOCOM-1B from the Cape made sense to me as a pathfinder of sorts for launch vehicles that don’t have a pad on the west coast but need to fly to polar orbits—Falcon Heavy and Starship in SpaceX’s case.

But it seems that this might be the new normal for SpaceX missions that, like PACE at 1,700 kilograms, have very light payloads. SpaceX’s Vandenberg manifest is pretty empty these days, so why deal with switching operations coast-to-coast when you can fly it from the Cape just as easily?