On Friday, NASA closed the bidding process to select a launch vehicle for an upcoming Earth science mission to measure sea level changes, Sentinel-6B. The mission is expected to launch into low Earth orbit in about four years, and the space agency is finalizing the choice of a rocket.
These bidding processes are secret to protect the competitive interests of bidders in terms of prices and capacities. However, realistically, there is no mystery as to 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.
That’s because there are currently no other bidders for NASA’s medium and large science missions beyond SpaceX and its fleet of Falcon rockets.
Offer is “withdrawn”
In response to questions about this lack of competition for its science missions, including Sentinel-6B, NASA declined to provide answers to Ars’ questions. Rather, spokesman Leejay Lockhart issued the following statement: “NASA cannot share the number of bids or waiver request information as they are considered competitively sensitive.”
However, it seems likely that at least the last three awards under NASA’s Launch Services II contract have seen SpaceX bid against itself. United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno confirmed this himself after NASA announced 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 Bruno said his company had “withdrawn” its bid after all of its Atlas V rockets sold out.
A source confirmed that United Launch Alliance also did not bid for the launch of the Rome Nancy Grace Space Telescope, which NASA announced in July 2022 it had awarded to SpaceX, or the Sentinel-6B contract, which closed the tender on September 30.
This lack of competition dates back to the period from 2005 to 2015, when NASA relied heavily on the United Launch Alliance and its Delta and Atlas rockets to carry its science missions into space. SpaceX broke that monopoly when it launched the Jason-3 mission for NASA and NOAA in January 2016. Partly in response to that competition, and partly out of a desire to end its reliance on rocket engines Russians, United Launch Alliance is ending production of both. its Atlas and Delta rockets in favor of what is intended to be a more competitive American-made Vulcan rocket.