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SpaceX Earns Certification to Launch NASA Science Missions

May 17, 2015 07:19 PM EDT

It's official. NASA has formally certified SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket to launch all but the agency's most costly robotic science missions. The first mission for SpaceX will be the launch of a United States and France oceanography satellite that is scheduled for liftoff from California in July.

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According to George Diller, a spokesperson from NASA, the space agency's Launch Services Program, which manages the agency's rocket procurements for research missions, concluded the multi-year certification on Tuesday.

This new milestone now clears the Falcon 9 to launch what NASA calls "medium-risk" science missions, a classification that includes most of the agency's Earth observation satellites and many of its interplanetary probes.  The Falcon 9 is now certified by NASA as a "Category 2" launch vehicle.

In order to launch the most valuable spacecraft, such as the multibillion-dollar interplanetary flagship missions, NASA requires a Category 3 certification.  The Atlas 5, Delta 2 and Pegasus XL rockets operated by SpaceX rivals United Launch Alliance and Orbital ATK currently meet the stringent requirements for Category 3 certification.

NASA and SpaceX began pursuing the certification of the Falcon 9 in 2012, after SpaceX won an $82 million contract to launch the Jason 3 mission, a project jointly funded by the United States and France to measure sea roughness.

Originally, SpaceX bid to launch the Jason 3 with the older Falcon 9 v1.0 version of its rocket, but switched to the more powerful Falcon 9 v1.1, which features upgraded Merlin engines and other changes.  NASA said the change in rockets forced engineers to redo part of the certification work, which includes management, process and engineering audits of the contractor.

Jason 3 is currently set for launch on July 22 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket will deploy the 1,124 pound spacecraft into orbit 830 miles above the Earth, where the satellite will then activate a radar altimeter to bounce signals off the world's oceans to measure wave height, sea level rise and other data that are important for weather forecasting, oceanography and climate change research.

The launch will be the Falcon 9's second flight from Vandenberg, which is used to send satellites into polar orbits.  The first launch of Falcon 9 from California was in September 2013.  

SpaceX currently has another NASA science mission on the Falcon 9 manifest, but now the rocket is eligible to win even more contracts for launches.

SpaceX has already successfully launched six resupply missions to the International Space Station under contract to NASA, but the agency arranged the launches through the space station program and bypassed the certification needed for science missions.

NASA deemed the space station cargo flights could launch on the unproven Falcon 9 rocket by classifying the missions in a separate high-risk category that allowed the agency to procure launches commercially.

The U.S. Air Force is also nearing the end of a similar certification push to approve SpaceX for launches of the military's national security satellites, with officials stating that the certification process should be complete next month.