Blue Origin is arriving from low Earth orbit to Mars.
NASA has given Blue Origin a task order to launch a mission to Mars known as the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE). The agency announced the order in a statement. (opens in new tab) Published Thursday (February 9).
The twin spacecraft is due to launch in late 2024 aboard Blue Origin’s upcoming New Glenn rocket, assuming the booster is ready in time and will take the company beyond the suborbital realms to where it flies now.
ESCAPADE is scheduled to study the magnetosphere, the magnetic zone of the Red Planet’s atmosphere, with twin spacecraft designed by Rocket Lab. Two spacecraft orbiting Mars will observe how the solar wind (charged particles from the sun) has shredded the atmosphere over eons, thinning it considerably.
The mission’s results could allow scientists to learn more about how the planet got so dry over time, as billions of years ago it appears that Martian water flowed abundantly on the surface.
Related: New evidence of liquid water on Mars suggests the planet is geothermally active
Blue Origin is one of a small group of companies that were being considered for the job. NASA selected it from the agency’s Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) list of 13 companies formulated in 2022. Financial details of Thursday’s contract were not released by NASA.
The VADR is for “new opportunities for science and technology payloads and to foster a growing U.S. commercial launch market,” according to NASA documentation. (opens in new tab). In 2022, NASA awarded (opens in new tab) Phantom Space Corp. four cubesat-class missions as part of VADR; these launches are scheduled for 2024 on the Phantom’s Daytona rocket.
Blue Origin launches people and cargo with a smaller suborbital rocket called the New Shepard. The booster suffered an anomaly during launch on September 12, 2022, halting all launches. Blue has not provided details of the investigation in the five months since the issue occurred.
When ready, New Glenn will come in two variants, a two-stage and a three-stage, to reach orbital space and beyond. It is predicted to reach 95 meters (313 feet) high, five times the 18 meters (59 feet) of New Shepard.
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “Why am I taller (opens in new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).