WASHINGTON — The head of a NASA Mars mission flying on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket says he is confident the vehicle will be ready in time for a launch next year.

NASA announced Feb. 9 that it selected Blue Origin to launch the agency’s two Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE) spacecraft to Mars in 2024 to study the planet’s magnetosphere. NASA did not announce the value of the task order, awarded through the Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR), but procurement databases later showed it was worth $20 million.

The spacecraft will launch on Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle, which has yet to make its first flight after once being slated to start launches in 2020. The company has not set a date for the first New Glenn launch or stated where ESCAPADE will fit into that vehicle’s manifest.

“It will be an early New Glenn mission and we’re going to be ready,” Ariane Cornell, vice president of commercial orbital, astronaut and international sales at Blue Origin, said of ESCAPADE’s place on its manifest during a panel discussion at the Satellite 2023 conference March 14.

The principal investigator for ESCAPADE, Rob Lillis of the University of California Berkeley’s Space Science Laboratory, also expects New Glenn to be ready for next year’s launch.

“It hasn’t launched yet and we are concerned about that,” he said during a presentation at an April 11 meeting of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group. “But, having seen the Blue Origin facility at Cape Canaveral, I was much less concerned after seeing all the work they’ve done. I’m confident they will likely be ready for the launch of ESCAPADE.”

In his presentation, he said the current launch window for the mission is Aug. 6 through 15 of 2024. However, he later tweeted that the window “is approximate and provisional” and that options for the mission’s trajectory are still being studied.

The spacecraft take a somewhat circuitous route to Mars. The launch will place the spacecraft into an Earth orbit with a period of about 1.6 days. “NASA didn’t promise us a ride to Mars and asked us to be as flexible as possible,” he explained.

After launch, the spacecraft will boost themselves into higher Earth orbits before performing a maneuver to go to Mars. The spacecraft arrive at Mars in September 2025 and start their one-year science mission in April 2026.

Each ESCAPADE spacecraft, being built by Rocket Lab, weighs 550 kilograms, of which 350 kilograms is fuel. “The spacecraft started off a lot lighter, but as developments continued, they just got heavier and heavier,” Lillis said. That was in part to accommodate a wide range of potential launch loads given uncertainty about which vehicle would launch the mission.

That uncertainty, he said, affected many other aspects of spacecraft design, from their thermal environment to telemetry requirements. “There’s a million different things that get harder when you don’t know how you’re getting to where you’re going,” he said. “It’s been a huge pain.”

Since NASA selected New Glenn to launch ESCAPADE, he said he’s had 15 meetings with Blue Origin. “They’ve been very responsive.”

The launch vehicle selection process, handled by NASA’s Launch Services Program, was “a learning experience for everybody,” Lillis said. ESCAPADE is one of the first missions to use the VADR contract, after NASA selected Rocket Lab for two Electron launches of Earth science cubesats last November.

He confirmed the $20 million price for the New Glenn, which is “massively oversized” for ESCAPADE. “It’s a new company trying to get into the market,” he said of Blue Origin. “They were able to bid what they knew the price was going to be, regardless of the cost to them.”

NASA selected ESCAPADE in 2019 as one of three missions in its Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program. All three experienced problems finding rides, with ESCAPADE forced to redesign its mission after being removed as a rideshare on the launch of the Psyche asteroid because of changes in the trajectory of that larger spacecraft.

Janus, another SIMPLEx mission that was to ride with Psyche, is now in limbo after the Psyche mission was delayed to October 2023, with no guarantee the twin spacecraft, designed to study binary asteroids, will ever fly. A third SIMPLEx mission, Lunar Trailblazer, was originally set to launch as a rideshare on the IMAP mission in 2025, but NASA moved it to the second lunar lander mission by Intuitive Machines, IM-2, current planned to launch in late 2023.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...