EscaPADE Photons
A new version of the EscaPADE Mars mission will use Rocket Lab's Photon bus, launching a NASA-provided commercial vehicle in 2024. Credit: Rocket Lab

WASHINGTON — A smallsat Mars mission that had to revise its plans after it lost its initial ride has won NASA approval to move into full-scale development.

NASA announced Aug. 20 that the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (EscaPADE) had passed an agency review called Key Decision Point C, allowing it to move into its final design and construction of its instruments.

EscaPADE, part of NASA’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program, will go into orbit around Mars and study the interaction of the planet’s magnetosphere with the solar wind and how that affects the escape of gases from the planet’s atmosphere.

EscaPADE was originally slated to launch in 2022 as a secondary payload on NASA’s Psyche mission to the main belt asteroid of the same name. The two EscaPADE smallsats would be dropped off at Mars during a flyby by Psyche on its way to its destination. However, NASA dropped EscaPADE from the Psyche launch during a preliminary design review a year ago after concluding a change in launch vehicles for the Psyche mission would change the trajectory in such a way that it was no longer feasible to include EscaPADE.

The mission found new life in June when Rocket Lab announced it won a contract from the University of California Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL) to develop a new design based on the company’s Photon satellite bus. That contract, though, was dependent on passing the Key Decision Point C review.

“We are thrilled to pass this critical milestone,” Rob Lillis, principal investigator for EscaPADE at SSL, said in a NASA statement. “We’re very excited to now move towards final designs, assembly, test, launch and get on our way to Mars.”

“EscaPADE is an innovative mission that demonstrates that advanced interplanetary science is now within reach for a fraction of traditional costs, and we’re proud to make it possible with Photon,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a company statement. “We are delighted to receive the green light from NASA to proceed to flight.”

While the Key Decision Point C milestone is typically where NASA confirms the cost and schedule of the mission, the agency did not disclose the cost of EscaPADE. Missions in the SIMPLEx program, which include the Janus mission to the asteroid belt and the Lunar Trailblazer orbiter, have cost caps of $55 million. Neither Rocket Lab nor SSL disclosed the terms of their contract.

Rocket Lab will build the spacecraft for EscaPADE but it will not provide the launch. NASA is looking for a rideshare opportunity for the mission as soon as January 2024, allowing the spacecraft to arrive at Mars 11 months later. The other two SIMPLEx missions are also using rideshare launch services.

“We’re evaluating a number of rideshare options to enable this critically important science while also lowering costs,” Alan Zide, program executive for the mission at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement.

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...