NASA has selected Blue Origin's New Glenn, the company's heavy-lift orbital launch vehicle that has yet to go on its first launch, for a science mission to Mars. As Reuters notes, it's also the company's first interplanetary NASA contract. The mission is called Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers or ESCAPADE, and it was designed to study the planet's magnetosphere using twin spacecraft. NASA is targeting a late 2024 launch for the mission, which means we won't have to wait too long to finally see the New Glenn in action — if the Jeff Bezos-owned space corp can prevent further development delays, that is.
The New Glenn vehicle is the company's answer to SpaceX's Falcon Heavy and other company's heavy-lift vehicles. Blue Origin initially targeted a 2020 date for its first launch — and NASA approved it for future unmanned scientific and exploration missions that year — but the event kept getting pushed back. It was moved to 2021 and then to 2022. By the end of March last year, Jarrett Jones, Blue Origin's SVP for New Glenn, admitted that the vehicle wasn't going to fly for the first time in 2022 and that the company was in the process of setting a new date.
NASA has granted Blue Origin the contract for ESCAPADE under the Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) program, which was designed to foster the growth of commercial launch services in the US. The agency intends to use launch vehicles from program participants specifically for "small satellites and Class D payloads" that can tolerate higher risk. In other words, VADR contracts are meant for lower-cost missions. "By using a lower level of mission assurance, and commercial best practices for launching rockets, these highly flexible contracts help broaden access to space through lower launch costs," NASA said in its announcement of New Glenn's selection.
The ESCAPADE mission will launch from Space Launch Complex-36 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. It will take about 11 months for the mission to reach the red planet. After that, it will take a few more months for the twin spacecraft to reach the orbit ideal for gathering information about the Martian magnetosphere. The data it will provide can help give scientists a better understanding of space weather, so that safeguards could be put in place to better protect astronauts and satellites in our continued exploration of outer space.