Small satellite launcher Rocket Lab has been tapped to provide a pair of Photon spacecraft for a mission to Mars in 2024.
The Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE) mission (yes, we suspect that there are elements within NASA just as keen on backronyms as we in Vulture Central) is to study Mars's magnetosphere as well as supporting crewed missions in the future through improved storm prediction.
The ESCAPADE mission will be managed by the NASA Science Mission Directorate's Heliophysics Division and will be the first of the division's missions to visit another planet. Rocket Lab is kicking off the final mission design and is to start manufacturing the Photons required.
The spacecraft will launch atop a "NASA provided launch vehicle," so not necessarily one of Rocket Lab's Electrons (which would, to be honest, struggle to launch two fully loaded Photons in one go). It will join both CAPSTONE, which is the company's mission to the Moon for NASA, and a privately funded science mission to Venus in the interplanetary exploration club.
The CAPSTONE mission, due to ride to space on an Electron, had its launch site switched earlier this month. Originally planned for Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) in Virginia, the CAPSTONE spacecraft, which will be a Photon payload, will now lift off from New Zealand's Launch Complex 1 (LC-1) later this year.
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The company has been tight-lipped regarding reasons for the shift, with CEO Peter Beck using words like "flexible" for the company's operations. However, it does follow the July move (and launch) of a United States Space Force mission from LC-2 to LC-1. The explanation given then was that NASA certification for autonomous flight termination system software for launches from LC-2 was still ongoing.
There have been a pair of Photon test launches in the last year (following a pathfinder) and CAPSTONE will be the first operational mission. The Photon will be used as a trans-lunar injection stage and deploy the CAPSTONE satellite, which will enter a highly elliptical orbit over the Moon's poles, while the Photon spacecraft will go on to conduct a lunar fly-by. ®