NASA awarded the contract to launch the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE) mission to Blue Origin. The award is part of NASA’s Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) contracts.
VADR arranges fixed-price launch services for scientific and technological payloads and includes thirteen companies. SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, Virgin Orbit, and Spaceflight, Inc., also have contracts under the VADR program.
The VADR program is working on reducing launch costs by developing missions that can tolerate higher risks. This reduces the need to provide robust mission assurance.
The ESCAPADE mission includes two orbiters that will take readings of Mars’ remaining magnetic field and how it interacts with particles in the solar wind. Rocket Lab will build the orbiters, which will be not much larger than refrigerators and based on Rocket Lab’s design for Photon spacecraft.
One of the advantages of having two orbiters with nearly identical capabilities is that they can provide a “stereo,” or three-dimensional, view of the planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field by observing them from different angles.
Because Mars cooled off faster than Earth and doesn’t have a strong dynamo effect, it lost most of its magnetosphere. Data from the recently-ended InSight mission suggests that the magnetic field may actually be ten times stronger than previously thought. Findings on the magnetic field based on InSight’s data have already been published in the Nature journal.
Delving deeper into what’s left of Mars’ magnetic field can help scientists understand how Earth’s stronger magnetosphere protects it from radiation and particles in the solar wind. The magnetosphere can trap solar particles that hit it, which can not only protect life on Earth from the solar particles’ harmful effects, but also contribute to phenomena like auroras.
The Planetary Mission Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is collaborating with the University of California in Berkeley on ESCAPADE. NASA’s Heliophysics Department is providing funding.