Rocket Lab wins NASA contract for the Mars ESCAPADE area probe

A conceptual representation of the two ESCAPADE space probes in orbit around Mars.

Missile laboratory

Rocket Lab, close to finalizing its SPAC deal, announced Tuesday that it had secured an early contract that could send two of its Photon spacecraft on a mission to Mars in 2024.

NASA has awarded Rocket Lab a design contract for the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE) mission as part of its Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program. The goal is to send space probes into orbit around Mars to study the makeup of the planet’s magnetosphere and better understand how solar winds remove the atmosphere over time.

While the total cost of the mission is yet to be announced, Rocket Lab’s microwave-sized photon spacecraft is an inexpensive way to carry out an interplanetary mission, often costing hundreds of millions of dollars or more. Photon is at the core of Rocket Lab’s space systems business, with the company expanding beyond building rockets to building versatile spacecraft over the past year.

“Traditionally, interplanetary missions would be carried out, one speaks of large decadal missions – generally with a ‘B’. [for billions] before that, “Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told CNBC.

“What we set out to do … was to reassess and say, ‘Well, wait a minute, for tens of millions of dollars, why can’t you take a smaller spaceship to another planet and actually do some really meaningful science? ‘”said Beck.

Advances by private companies in rockets and spacecraft have “absolutely” reduced the cost of interplanetary missions, Beck said.

“Besides, it’s just cool,” said Beck.

Rocket Lab has completed ESCAPADE’s preliminary design review for NASA. The contract will be subject to further reviews, with the space agency expected to decide by the end of July whether the company will build the two spaceships.

NASA has not yet disclosed the cost of the mission as the next two phases, the construction process and the selection of a rocket for launch, have yet to be announced. However, part of the overall goal is to keep costs down. For comparison, a pair of communications relay cube satellites built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory held a technology demonstration with the arrival of the InSight lander mission in 2018 – at a cost of $ 18.5 million.

“The whole point is to do this as cheaply as possible and get the most science bang for the buck. I think you will look back on that mission in hindsight and think, ‘Man, that was incredibly worth it,’ “said Beck.” If you talk to a planetary scientist, he can do maybe two missions in his entire career. And we say: ‘That just sucks, we have to increase the iteration speed here.’ “

The moon, Venus and then Mars

ESCAPADE is also not the company’s first interplanetary mission on deck. Rocket Lab previously received another NASA mission for Photon called CAPSTONE, which is slated to send a cube satellite into orbit around the moon later this year. Beck said a launch date should be announced “pretty soon”. In addition, Rocket Lab is flying a private mission to Venus, also using a photon spacecraft, to launch in 2023.

“The Capstone mission to the moon really made a lot of this possible in the beginning … and is very similar to the Venus mission, and we continued to use this with the Mars ESCAPADE missions,” said Beck. “We’re really trying to get established … if you have some smaller interplanetary missions with big scientific goals that you want to accomplish, we’re your one stop shop.”

Rocket Lab’s “Photon” right satellite platform can be seen in the company’s factory next to an upper stage of the Electron rocket.

Missile laboratory

The interplanetary photons are not like the spacecraft that Rocket Lab launches into low earth orbit, as it requires a reinforced propulsion system, the ability to withstand extreme temperature fluctuations, a more powerful radio, and reinforcement against radiation, among other things.

“It’s just crazy, crazy that you never have to think about, but these are the things we’re really good at,” said Beck. “And just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it has to be a billion dollars, it just means it gets a little bit smarter.”

NASA will later select a rocket to launch ESCAPADE, and Beck said Rocket Lab hopes to have its upcoming neutron rocket ready in time to compete for the contract – “but we were happy to build such a spacecraft for other missions “, he added.

CEO Peter Beck stands at the base of the fairing or nose cone of the neutron missile that the company is developing.

Missile laboratory

When Rocket Lab announced plans to go public earlier this year through a merger with specialty acquisition firm Vector, the company announced that it had posted $ 2 million in space systems sales for the past year. Beck has “high” ambitions for building and selling spacecraft, but said it already “surpasses” them – which is good given that Rocket Lab’s SPAC presentation predicts the unit will have sales of US $ 656 million by 2027 -Dollars will hit $ 2 million last year.

Working through electron’s failure

The Electron missile booster for the company’s 20th launch and second attempt at recovery from the splash

Missile laboratory

Rocket Lab’s most recent electron rocket launch, its 20th flight to date, missed orbit after a failure after the vehicle’s second stage engine fired. Beck says the error was caused by “a layering of really complicated, improbable probabilities on top of one another.”

The company reproduced the bug a week after launch by taking a rocket booster off its production line, cutting its tank in half, and “putting the entire second stage in a vacuum chamber,” he said.

“We had to do some pretty bad things to repeat the mistake,” said Beck.

While Rocket Lab has not yet completed its internal review, the company is almost done. The outage was Rocket Lab’s second in the past twelve months, but Beck stressed that the company’s problems are “not unknown” in the launch industry, citing the previous failures of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets and Vega rockets by Arianespace.

“This industry is pretty cruel,” Beck said, adding that the situation “is the reality of launching a launcher and also the reality of flying a lot. It is very easy to have a 100% flight record when your missiles are in place.” always are. ” on the ground.”

SPAC closure on track

Rocket Lab announced its SPAC merger in March, and Beck said the “original timeframe will hold” until the end of the second quarter, which is the end of June.

The SPAC deal gives Rocket Lab a valuation of $ 4.1 billion, with the company anticipating approximately $ 750 million in cash on hand after the merger is complete.

“We look super good,” said Beck.

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