We have an exciting update for the NASA ESCAPADE mission. The twin spacecraft mission that will study the magnetosphere of Mars is getting its scientific instruments integrated with the spacecraft buses.
What do you pack for a mission to Mars orbit to study the red planet’s magnetosphere?— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) November 13, 2023
Why a Floating Potential Probe, Planar Ion Probe & Electrostatic Analyzer, of course!
Exciting times at our spacecraft production complex where scientific instruments are being integrated with… pic.twitter.com/VoRMw0lSZD
The project is led by the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, along with NASA, the Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, and Advanced Space LLC. Rocket Lab is the one to give the good news since the two spacecraft are based on its Photon platform and is overseeing the integration process of the two probes, called Gold and Blue.
The name ESCAPADE stands for ESCApe and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers. Main goal of the mission will be to study the interactions between the solar wind and the upper atmosphere of Mars. The particular conditions of the thin atmosphere of the Red Planet, and its magnetosphere have for long been objects of study, and the two spacecraft will be a fundamental tool to further that research.
The mission is part of the Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program, a NASA-funded project that comprises this mission and two others. The Lunar Trailblazer, to be launched onboard the Intuitive Machines IM-2 moon mission in 2024, and the Janus mission. It was a twin smallsat asteroid study mission that was scheduled to launch along the Psyche spacecraft, but has now been placed in storage following the pushback of the launch date from 2022 to October 2023, despite efforts to find a new launch opportunity.
ESCAPADE can be considered a successor of the MAVEN mission, orbiting Mars since 2014, however, it has fundamental differences. The mission costs less and comprises two spacecraft, not just one. This means that a timescale can be given to the phenomena observed around Mars: having a double platform on different orbits will let researchers determine the evolution over time of the flows of plasma around Mars.
Investigating the Red Planet’s surroundings
ESCAPADE is carrying a multitude of scientific instruments that will be studying Mars’ magnetosphere dynamics in different aspects.
The Escapade Magnetometer (EMAG) instrument is tasked with directly measuring Mars’ magnetic field, up to 1000 nT. It is mounted on the two-meter boom extending from the spacecraft body, along with one part of the ELP Langmuir Probe.
The Escapade Langmuir probe, provided by Embry Riddle Aeronautical University is a particular scientific instrument to study plasma. It can measure electric potential, temperature, and density of electrons. It’s composed of different probes acting together: one on the boom (mNLP), one sticking out of the spacecraft (Floating Potential Probe), and two on the surface (Planar Ion Probes).
The last instrument is the Escapade Electrostatic Analyzer (EEA), which measures suprathermal ions, or ions around Mars generated from the highly energetic interstellar gas coming from the Sun. It has successfully been mounted on top of the spacecraft.
Working together, these instruments will help understand the Red Planet’s unique magnetosphere, how energy from the Sun flows and is transported through it, guiding ion and plasma flow. Not only that: it will also help uncover the processes driving its atmospheric escape, useful research not only for Mars, but for every planet with an atmosphere.
A greatly anticipated launcher
The launch of the two spacecraft in late 2024 will also be a thing to look out for. The mission will be launched from Space Launch Complex 36 onboard Blue Origin’s New Glenn Heavy Lift Rocket, as announced by NASA in February 2023.
The launch is part of the Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) service contract, along with other 12 companies, such as Rocket Lab and ABL.
The development of the New Glenn rocket has been going on for quite some time, and the BE-4 engines powering it are being used by ULA in their Vulcan rocket launching this December. Although more secretive than their main competitor, they might be on track for a 2024 launch.
With a launch in late 2024, the ESCAPADE mission would reach Mars in 2025, and after setting up the final orbits and instruments, it will be ready to do science and help us uncover the complex dynamics of the Martian magnetospheric environment.