Rocket Lab is (mostly) known for its orbital flights, but its interplanetary efforts are about to bear fruit. The startup has won a contract to build two spacecraft for ESCAPADE (Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers), a NASA-selected mission to study how solar wind strips Mars' atmosphere and changes the planet's climate. Twin Photon spacecraft, nicknamed Blue and Gold, will travel to and orbit Mars for a year while they conduct their primary science objectives.
The Photon vehicles will meld Rocket Lab's existing Curie propulsion with star trackers. reaction wheels, deep space navigation transceivers and "other subsystems" to help them navigate deep space and conduct science around the Red Planet. They're expected to launch in 2024 aboard a NASA-supplied commercial rocket, provided they pass both a design review later in June and a confirmation review in July.
NASA chose ESCAPADE as one of three missions under its Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program, which aims to both lower the cost of interplanetary science and make it more accessible.
This should be a significant coup for Rocket Lab if all goes well. NASA has so far leaned on higher-profile outfits like SpaceX and Blue Origin for public-private collaborations like this — ESCAPADE could lead to more and larger deals, particularly for interplanetary flights. This is, of course, presuming that Rocket Lab can put past launch failures behind it and earn NASA's long-term trust.