Rocket Lab wins NASA Mars spacecraft deal to prove its cost theory

Rocket Lab is building two Mars spacecraft for NASA, with the two unmanned Photon probes headed to the red planet to not only do research but also demonstrate the practicality of more affordable space tech. The Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE) mission is currently scheduled to launch in 2024, hitching a ride aboard a NASA-provided commercial launch vehicle.

NASA's push to tap commercial industry for more cost-effective exploration of space has resulted in multiple big wins over the past few years, but the Photon spacecraft are something potentially even more exciting. For a start there's the speed at which the two units will be ready, far more rapid than the typical years – or even decades – that traditional spacecraft require for development and construction.

Then there's the price. "Planetary science missions have traditionally costed hundreds of millions of dollars and taken up to a decade to come to fruition," Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, points out. "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."

Exactly how much the Rocket Lab hardware will cost in comparison is unclear, but the company's pitch has always been one of far more accessible spacecraft. The two Photons – which will be named Gold and Blue – will take around 11 months to reach Mars, at which point they'll establish elliptical orbits around the planet.

The goal of ESCAPADE is to look at how the solar wind affects the red planet's atmosphere, and thus gain more understanding into how its climate evolved over time. The primary mission is expected to last a year.

Photon uses Rocket Lab's Curie propulsion system, first implemented in early 2018 on the company's orbital rocket launch to boost two CubeSats into a circular orbit. It's designed to use a so-called "green" monopropellant, though Rocket Lab has also developed a more potent version – HyperCurie – which is expected to be used in NASA's upcoming CAPSTONE mission.

Also onboard Blue and Gold will be star trackers and reaction wheels, which Rocket Lab will use for precision pointing, along with ranging transceivers for deep space navigation.

Although upbeat about ESCAPADE and this new deal with NASA, Rocket Lab hasn't had an entirely easy year. A launch attempt in May ended in failure, after the second stage of its Electron rocket shut down prematurely. An investigation into the cause of that is still underway.

ESCAPADE is scheduled to undertake a preliminary design review this month, with NASA expected to run through a confirmation review in July before giving the green light for implementation and, eventually, flight.