Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin to launch NASA Mars mission in 2024
Blue Origin was selected to perform a Mars mission for NASA.
The U.S. space agency announced in a statement that it had contracted billionaire Jeff Bezos' private space firm to launch a mission next year to study the magnetic field around Mars.
The contract calls for Blue Origin to launch the mission aboard one of its New Glenn heavy-lift rockets, which are yet to launch to orbit for the first time.
The mission, ESCAPADE, is scheduled to launch two spacecraft to the red planet from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, in late 2024.
Blue Origin to launch NASA Mars mission in 2024
Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket, named after NASA astronaut John Glenn, who was the first American to orbit Earth in 1962, will feature a reusable first stage. The private space company has flown NASA missions before, using its New Shepard rocket, which can send research payloads and space tourists to suborbital space.
Now, Blue Origin has its first deep space mission contract with NASA, as it continues to compete with the likes of SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance for those lucrative contracts — Blue Origin's long-winded dispute with NASA over its awarding SpaceX a lunar lander contract for its Artemis III mission is now seemingly water under the bridge.
For the ESCAPADE mission, Blue Origin will provide launch capabilities with New Glenn, while Rocket Lab will provide the two Mars-bound ESCAPADE spacecraft using their Photon platform.
The two Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE) spacecraft will travel for roughly 11 months before reaching Mars' orbit. Once there, they will analyze the planet's magnetosphere and its interactions with solar radiation.
NASA program aims to accelerate new rocket development
NASA awarded Blue Origin the contract after announcing the firm as one of 13 companies it chose last year for its Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare missions (VADR) program.
VADR aims to assign lower-priority science missions to newer, unproven rockets with a higher chance of failure to accelerate the development of new launch systems. As such, NASA has previously said the maximum contract it will award under the VADR program would be $300 million. Neither NASA nor Blue Origin has disclosed financial details related to the ESCAPADE mission.
"By using a lower level of mission assurance, and commercial best practices for launching rockets, these highly flexible contracts help broaden access to space through lower launch costs," NASA explained in a press release.
It is arguably a considerable risk that NASA is taking, as Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket has yet to fly for the first time due to numerous technical challenges. Still, NASA isn't the only customer to have selected New Glenn. Blue Origin says Eutelsat, JSAT, and Telesat have all contracted New Glenn launches to send satellites to orbit. Jeff Bezos' other company, Amazon, has also contracted New Glenn for 12 launches of its massive Project Kuiper internet satellite launch campaign totaling 83 launches overall.