SpaceX’s emerging challenger Rocket Lab prides itself in making small, inexpensive rockets and satellites. But it has grand ambitions to put these petite spacecraft to interplanetary use. After locking in a contract to send a small probe to the Moon for NASA later this year and an in-house project to search for life on Venus, Rocket Lab announced Tuesday it has won another contract to send two of its Photon spacecraft for a NASA science mission to Mars in 2024.
The contract, awarded by the University of California Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory (UCBSSL) under NASA’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program, commissions Rocket Lab to design and maybe build two spacecraft for the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE) mission to study Mars’ unique hybrid magnetosphere in order to understand how its climate changes over time.
“This is a hugely promising mission that will deliver big science in a small package. Planetary science missions have traditionally cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take up to a decade to come to fruition,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement. “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.”
The Photon is a satellite bus about the size of a kitchen oven. It can carry up to 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of payloads on interplanetary trips. The twin-spacecraft system will be launched to Mars aboard a NASA-provided launch vehicle in 2024. Rocket Lab hopes it could develop its own Neutron booster, a mid-sized reusable rocket (about two-thirds the height of a SpaceX Falcon 9), in time for the mission.
The Mars contract marks another milestone in Rocket Lab’s vision to make interplanetary missions affordable and accessible to the broader science community.
“Bringing down the cost of interplanetary missions, and also making them possible in much shorter timeframes, is having an enormous impact on the volume of science we can get done,” Beck told Observer in an email. “It’s typical for planetary scientists to get one or two major missions launched in their career, largely due to mission cost, and that’s changing with Photon.”
He added, “By sending lots of smaller missions more frequently, rather than one major study per decade, scientists can iterate on findings as we go, adapt, and then launch the next mission. The kinds of science these missions will achieve are groundbreaking, from searching for life in Venus’ atmosphere to understanding how climates change on Mars.”
Rocket Lab is set to go public on Nasdaq later this month through a merger with the special-purpose acquisition company Vector Acquisition in a deal valuing the space startup at $4.1 billion.