Long Beach-based rocket manufacturing and launch company Rocket Lab today announced it won a contract to design two Photon spacecraft for a scientific mission to Mars.
Led by Rob Lillis at the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE) mission will orbit two spacecraft around Mars to gather information related to the structure, composition, variability and dynamics of the planet’s hybrid magnetosphere, according to the Rocket Lab announcement.
“The mission will leverage its unique dual viewpoint on the Mars environment to explore how the solar wind strips atmosphere away from Mars to better understand how its climate has changed over time,” the announcement states.
The mission is being developed under NASA’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program. The twin spacecraft are expected to launch in 2024, ridesharing aboard a NASA commercial launch vehicle, according to the announcement.
The two Photon craft—named Blue and Gold—will travel for 11 months before inserting themselves into elliptical orbits around Mars. The craft will conduct a one-year mission using subsystems such as star trackers and ranging transceivers for deep space navigation, the company said.
The mission is one of three selected in 2019 as part of NASA’s SIMPLEx program. NASA will conduct a preliminary design review this month, with a confirmation review slated for July to determine if the mission will proceed to implementation and flight, according to Rocket Lab.
“This is a hugely promising mission that will deliver big science in a small package,” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said in a statement. “Planetary science missions have traditionally cost hundreds of millions of dollars and taken up to a decade to come to fruition. Our Photon spacecraft for ESCAPADE will demonstrate a more cost-effective approach to planetary exploration that will increase the science community’s access to our solar system for the better.”