4 mins read 22 Jun 2021

Rocket Lab Sets Eyes on a Mission to the Red Planet

The California Berkeley Space Sciences Lab has chosen Rocket Lab to design Photon craft destined for Mars orbit. 

With a dual viewpoint on the Mars environment, ESCAPADE hopes to reveal how the solar wind strips atmosphere away from Mars. Credit: Rocket Lab

NZ and US-based rocket company, Rocket Lab, announced last week they have been awarded a subcontract to design twin spacecraft for California Berkeley’s NASA EscaPADE (Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers) Mission to Mars. 

The mission, projected for launch in 2024, will orbit two of Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft around the Red Planet. The craft (named Blue and Gold), will insert themselves into elliptical orbits around Mars, after travelling for 11 months to their destination, and conduct a further 1-year primary science mission.

ESCAPADE was one of 3 finalists chosen from 12 submissions in 2018 through an opportunity called the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx). NASA’s SIMPLEx Program has the goals of understanding our Solar system’s content, origin, and evolution.

The twin EscaPADE satellites will sample the hot ionized plasma (cross section in yellow and green) and magnetic fields (blue lines) to understand how Mars’ atmosphere escapes into space. Credit: Univ. of California Berkeley, Robert Lillis

The scientific objectives of the mission are to understand the structure, composition, variability, and dynamics of the Martian hybrid magnetosphere, also the forces that control flow through its collisional atmosphere, and how solar winds help shape the Martian climate. 

Multi-spacecraft missions have revolutionised our understanding of space plasma phenomena in Earth’s magnetospheric environment. With ESCAPADE, scholars at California Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory and their partners are hoping for similar breakthroughs.

The small-sat missions chosen (less than 180 kilograms in mass) in addition to the science value they will provide, are also required to be feasible, support planetary defense, and help fill in knowledge gaps as NASA moves forward with its plans for human exploration of the Moon and Mars.

Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate noted of the finalists to the SIMPLEx Program, Janus, ESCAPADE, and the Lunar Trailblazer: "Their miniaturized size enables these systems to be developed at reduced overall costs while performing targeted science missions and testing brand new technologies that future missions can use."

In 2022, the Janus team will also launch two identical small-satellites (the size of carry-on luggage) intending to fly close to two pairs of binary asteroids. Their observations could open up a new window into how these diverse bodies evolve and even burst apart over time. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck said: “Planetary science missions have traditionally cost hundreds of millions of dollars and taken up to a decade to come to fruition.” He went on to say the Photon product, developed in-house at Rocket Lab, will demonstrate a more cost-effective approach to planetary exploration. “This is a hugely promising mission that will deliver big science in a small package,” he said, alluding to the Science Mission Directorate’s aspirations for what SIMPLEx will deliver on the whole. 

Photon spacecraft are offered as a customisable satellite platform and as such, can be configured to the intent of the mission payload they carry. The ESCAPADE Photons will use Rocket Lab’s Curie system for propulsion into orbit and will be equipped with other subsystems that enable planetary science; including star trackers and reaction wheels for precision pointing from Rocket Lab’s Sinclair Interplanetary team (a merchant spacecraft components business Rocketlab acquired in March 2020), as well as ranging transceivers for deep space navigation.

The twin craft were originally intended to launch in August 2022 as a rideshare on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy but were de-manifested last year in September, due to difficulty getting complimentary trajectories with the Psyche (mission to orbit asteroid ‘16 Psyche’, a metal asteroid orbiting the sun) and Janus missions. The mission was subsequently redesigned.

A ‘NASA preliminary design review' and subsequent ‘confirmation review’ for the mission will occur by the end of next month to determine whether the mission can proceed to the next steps. If the team pass both the review stages, the spacecraft are anticipated to launch in 2024 ridesharing aboard a NASA-provided commercial launch vehicle.