A new mission to Mars will be launched by Blue Origin’s yet-to-be-tested New Glenn heavy-lift rocket, NASA announced Thursday.
The award is part of NASA’s Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) launch services contract, which involves 13 companies and cannot break a ceiling of $300 million.
Part of an effort by NASA not to over-rely on SpaceX rockets and help encourage competition in the private spaceflight sector, NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) awarded Blue Origin the launch contact for the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE) mission.
The mission will fly on New Glenn, Blue Origin’s yet-to-be-tested heavy-lift vehicle that is designed to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. The mission is scheduled to go in late 2024 from Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
New Glenn is powered by its BE-4 engines—each using liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas engine—which will fly for the first time this year on United Launch Alliance (ULA)’s Vulcan Centaur heavy-lift launch vehicle.
It’s possible that New Glenn could get an orbital flight test later this year.
“ESCAPADE follows a long tradition of NASA Mars science and exploration missions, and we’re thrilled NASA’s Launch Services Program has selected New Glenn to launch the instruments that will study Mars’ magnetosphere,” said Jarrett Jones, senior vice president, New Glenn, Blue Origin.
What is New Glenn?
A rocket 322 ft. tall, Blue Origin claims that New Glenn will be able to take 45 metric tons to low Earth orbit and 13 metric tons on deep-space missions.
As well as launching ESCAPADE it could green-light the core of Amazon’s Project Kuiper plan to launch 3,000+ broadband Internet satellites, launch a radio telescope to the Moon and make the Orbital Reef space station a reality.
What is ESCAPADE?
A mission to study Mars’ magnetosphere, ESCAPADE is part of the low budget NASA Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program. It will consist of two Rocket Lab Photon spacecraft that will cruise to Mars over 11 months before going into elliptical orbits around the red planet.
What will ESCAPADE do?
In this science phase the spacecraft will collect data to help planetary scientists understand the structure, composition, variability and dynamics of Mars’ unique hybrid magnetosphere. The mission will also support crewed exploration programs like Artemis through improved solar storm prediction.
Who is Rocket Lab?
Nominally a competitor to Blue Origin, New Zealand’s Rocket Lab has the Electron rocket, but it’s too small to launch ESCAPADE. Rocket Lab already has its CAPSTONE mission at the Moon while it’s also developing the first privately-funded science mission to Venus called Venus Life Finder (VLF).
The short mission will see a probe inserted into the planet’s hot, thick cloud layers to spend just five minutes searching for signs of habitable conditions. The plan is for VLF to be launched on Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from New Zealand in May 2023 for arrival in October 2023. The next launch window after that is January 2025.
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Who is Blue Origin?
Founded in 2000 by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin has been funded solely by Bezos himself. It’s estimated that he’s so far invested at least $8 billion of his own wealth, but a key part of Blue Origin’s business plan is to take revenues from government contracts. The most important part of that drive is to help fund the development of New Glenn.
The company was founded by Bezos with a vision of millions of people living and working in space for the benefit of Earth, according to Blue Origin. Its stated aim is to “tap into the limitless resources of space and enable the movement of damaging industries into space to preserve Earth, humanity’s blue origin.”