NASA will launch a Mars mission at Blue Origin’s New Glenn • businessupdates.org

by Ana Lopez

NASA is planning a science mission to Mars that will ride aboard a New Glenn — Blue Origin’s first major government contract for the untested launch vehicle.

New Glenn is the much, much bigger sibling of the New Shepard suborbital rocket in which so many celebrities and wealthy people have taken to the edge of space. Announced in 2016, the launch vehicle would compete with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and other heavy-lift options. But 6 years later, we have yet to see a New Glenn in one piece, let alone ready to launch a Mars mission.

The first flight for New Glenn was scheduled for late 2021, but that date was “refined” earlier that year, supposedly because a contract with the Pentagon fell through. Q4 of 2022 was the next window, but that’s clearly over. I have requested an updated timing.

The launch contract is through NASA’s Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) program, which awarded a cap of $300 million early last year to be split among 13 companies for various types of launch services. Anyone who is anyone is listed there, which essentially provides a cheap option for non-critical missions.

“These small satellites and Class D payloads tolerate relatively high risk and serve as an ideal platform for engineering and architectural innovation,” NASA wrote at the time of the awards ceremony. In other words, we’d certainly prefer them not to explode, but at this price, who’s arguing?

The lucky mission to get a spot on a New Glenn is Escapade, a dual-craft Mars magnetosphere study that, funnily enough, is being designed and built by launch rival Rocket Lab. (They don’t actually overlap yet, but they are nominally competitors.)

The imaginary launch date is in 2024, but those tend to slip, especially when the rocket they’re supposed to take off on is still a bit theoretical.

Rocket Lab isn’t mad, though. “The size of the spacecraft and ESCAPADE’s mission requirements made it unsuitable for launching on Electron,” the company told businessupdates.org.

And to refresh the mission: “The pair of photons will make an 11-month interplanetary cruise before going into elliptical orbits around Mars to understand the structure, composition, variability and dynamics of Mars’ unique hybrid magnetosphere – which also support of crewed exploration programs such as Artemis through improved solar storm prediction.”

New Glenn may not be flying yet, but there is a lot of interest in it, especially from Blue Origin’s friends at Kuiper, Amazon’s communications satellite constellation company. They ordered 12 last year, which should keep Blue’s new factory in Huntsville operational for the foreseeable future.

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