Nasa agrees to use Blue Origin rocket for Mars mission
Image credit: Rocket Lab USA/UC Berkeley
Jef Bezos' Blue Origin rocket has been awarded its first interplanetary Nasa contract for a mission that will study the magnetic field around Mars.
Nasa has revealed its plans to use Blue Origin's recently developed 'New Glenn' heavy-lift rocket to blast off its dual spacecraft for the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (Escapade) Mars mission.
New Glenn is the rocket designed by Blue Origin to compete with SpaceX's Falcon Heavy. The rocket's first flight was originally scheduled for late 2021, but this was subsequently pushed back and is still yet to take place.
Despite the lack of mission experience, the rocket has been chosen to launch Nasa's spacecraft in late 2024 from Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The twin Escapade spacecrafts will take around 11 months to reach their Mars orbit, where they will capture data from the planet's magnetosphere and its interactions with solar radiation.
“Escapade follows a long tradition of Nasa Mars science and exploration missions and we’re thrilled Nasa’s Launch Services Program has selected New Glenn to launch the instruments that will study Mars’ magnetosphere,” said Jarrett Jones, senior vice president of New Glenn at Blue Origin.
The contract is part of Nasa's Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) programme, which has received a budget of $300m (£248m) to be split among 13 companies.
At 322ft. tall, New Glenn is said to be able to take 45 metric tons to low-Earth orbit and 13 metric tons on deep-space missions. The rocket was named after pioneering Nasa astronaut John Glenn, who became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962.
In addition to the Nasa contract, New Glenn has been selected to carry payloads to orbit for three leading satellite operators - Eutelsat, JSAT and Telesat - as well as launching the Project Kuiper satellite constellation, Blue Origin said.
The decision to award the contract to Blue Origin has been perceived as part of Nasa's efforts to not become over-reliant on SpaceX rockets and to encourage competition in the private spaceflight sector.
The same day on which the Blue Origin contract was made public, Elon Musk's SpaceX company performed a key test on its huge new rocket system, Starship, which is said to become the most powerful operational rocket system in history when it makes its maiden flight.
In 2021, Blue Origin began using its own rockets to carry people on short trips above the atmosphere. The first of such flights carried Blue Origin’s founder Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark.
Last year, Nasa successfully launched its Artemis spacecraft, as part of a mission to take humans back to the Moon. The agency has also revealed its hopes of landing humans on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s as part of its Moon to Mars programme.
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