Rocket Lab Awarded NASA Contract For Two Orbital Martian Spacecraft

Rocket Lab's Photon interplanetary spacecraft will study Mars' magnetosphere.
Chris Young
An illutration of the two Photon spacecraftRocket Lab

Rocket Lab, the New Zealand-founded, California-based company that has previously built helicopter retrieval tech for first stage rockets, has been awarded a contract by NASA to build two orbital spacecraft to study Mars' magnetosphere, the company explained in a press statement.

The two spacecraft — which will be based on Rocket Lab's Photon platform — will be designed to help NASA better understand how Mars' climate has changed over time.

The contract was awarded through NASA's Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program.

"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," Rocket Lab stated in its release.

The mission, called ESCAPADE, is led by Rob Lillis at the University of California, Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, and will fly to Mars in 2024 aboard a so far undisclosed launch vehicle.

Rocket Lab announced its larger, reusable Neutron launch rocket in March, a competitor to SpaceX's Falcon 9, meaning there is a possibility that it could launch its own Photon spacecraft to Mars.

A more affordable method for deep space exploration

Rocket Lab's Photon platform is a satellite solution that offers Low Earth Orbit configurations as well as interplanetary exploration models. It offers a maximum payload capacity of 440 lb (200 kg), with >88 lb (>40 kg) for interplanetary missions.

One of the main pitches for the Photon platform — and no doubt one of the reasons that NASA awarded the contract — is that it offers an affordable means, relatively speaking of course, for deep space exploration.

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Rocket Lab had previously announced plans to send its Photon spacecraft to Venus in a private space mission, as well as the Moon via another NASA contract.

At the same time as its Neutron rocket announcement this year, Rocket Lab also revealed it had agreed to go public via a merger with a blank-check firm backed by private equity firm Vector Capital.

Rocket Lab stated in its press release that it will perform a design review in June for its two Mars-bound Photon spacecraft, closely followed by a design confirmation review in July, after which production of the two orbital spacecraft will go into full force. 

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