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SpaceX wins NASA satellite contract amid talk of slashing earth science budget

A rendering of the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) Satellite.
Source: NASA
A rendering of the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) Satellite.

SpaceX won a NASA contract to send a $112 million water-monitoring satellite into orbit, just as President-elect Donald Trump's advisers suggest they might try to slash NASA's earth science budget.

The plans call for SpaceX to launch the Surface Water and Ocean Topography, or SWOT, satellite in April 2021 from the Vandenburg Air Force Base in California.

The satellite is expected to be the first global survey of Earth's surface water, according to a NASA press release. It will take high-resolution ocean measurements, and track how bodies of water bodies change over time.

The satellite will survey at least 90 percent of the globe at least twice every 21 days. Apart from oceans, the satellite will capture information on lakes, rivers and reservoirs. NASA said it will help with managing freshwater resources around the world, and improve weather and climate predictions.

The SWOT spacecraft will be jointly developed and managed by NASA and the French space agency Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales.

The contract is a good sign for SpaceX, which suffered a blow after a Falcon rocket exploded during tests in September, taking a $300 million satellite with it.

The destroyed Amos-6 satellite was intended for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's project to supply internet service to regions across Africa.

As it happens, one of Trump's advisers indicated this week NASA could have its earth science budget slashed in the name of cracking down on what the advisor has previously called "politically correct environmental monitoring."

Trump campaign adviser Bob Walker told the Guardian Wednesday that while it might be difficult to discontinue current programs, a Trump administration could direct earth science research to other agencies, focusing NASA on space exploration.

Critics have said such a move would be purely political. Penn State climate researcher Michael Mann told the Guardian such an effort would "indicate the president-elect's willingness to pander to the very same lobbyists and corporate interest groups he derided throughout the campaign."

Should the president-elect, or Republican lawmakers, follow through on this process, it could either direct satellite-launch demand to other agencies (such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) or could reduce demand altogether.

Launching satellites for both government and private clients, such as Zuckerberg's program, are an important source of revenue for SpaceX. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said satellite launch contracts will help fund the company's ambitious — some say fantastical — plans to fly to, and ultimately colonize, the planet Mars.