Blue and gold orbiters bound for Mars in 2024

As this artist’s concept shows, the “Blue and Gold” orbiters – the ESCAPADE mission – will be launched to Mars in 2024. They have just passed their final mission exam. Image via Rocket Lab / UC Berkeley.

Blue and gold orbiters

March is a busy place these days. There are currently eight active orbiters on Mars, originating from the United States, Europe, Russia, India and China. At the end of August 2021, Miles Hatfield wrote in a NASA blog post that two more orbiters would join the fleet. Double Blue and Gold, they are part of the NASA GETAWAY mission, and they just passed the mission test. They should be launched in 2024.

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ESCAPADE stands for Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers. The University of California at Berkeley takes the lead. He will study the magnetosphere and atmosphere of Mars, as well as the solar wind.

The recent mission review – called Key Decision Point C – ended on August 17. The mission has therefore now entered its next phase. Specifically, the upcoming phase will include the final design and construction of the instruments that will board the Blue and Gold orbiters. As ESCAPADE principal investigator Rob Lillis of UC Berkeley said on the NASA blog:

We are delighted to take this crucial step, the culmination of two years of scientific and technical work by a talented and dedicated team from UC Berkeley and our partners. We are very happy to move now to final designs, assembly, testing, launch and our road to Mars.

Planet with a large flat rectangle around it in colors and two satellites.
The two orbiters will revolve around Mars in complementary orbits. They will sample hot ionized plasma (yellow and green) and magnetic fields (blue lines) to understand how the atmosphere of Mars escapes into space. Image via UC Berkeley / Robert Lillis.

ESCAPADE is a small satellite

GETAWAY is called a smallsat mission. According to NASA, it is a spacecraft with a mass of less than 180 kilograms (about 400 pounds). This contrasts with, say, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which weighed 2,180 kilograms (4,810 lb) at launch. Or it’s in contrast to the Mars Science Laboratory mission, which delivered the Curiosity rover to Mars. It had a launch mass of 3,839 kilograms (8,463 lb).

ESCAPADE’s two identical orbiters are developed by Rocket Lab. The Blue and Gold satellites will travel to Mars aboard Rocket Lab’s Photon bus, originally designed to launch payloads into Earth orbit. Each of the orbiters weighs no more than 120 kilograms (approximately 250 pounds), excluding fuel. So each is roughly the size of a mini-fridge. By reducing the whole package, costs will be kept to a minimum, NASA said, while a lot of scientific data can still be produced. According to Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab:

This is a hugely promising mission that will deliver great science in a small package. Our Photon spacecraft for GETAWAY will demonstrate a more cost-effective approach to planetary exploration that will increase the scientific community’s access to our solar system for the better. I am delighted that the hard work and dedication of the UC Berkeley and Rocket Lab engineering teams to date has paid off and that the mission has been approved by NASA to begin final design and construction.

As Lillis also commented in Berkeley News:

GETAWAY and two other recently approved NASA missions are experiments to determine whether advancements in the space industry over the past five to ten years can translate into much better science-per-dollar value for money. Sending two spacecraft to Mars for a total cost of less than $ 80 million is simply unheard of, but the current leadership of NASA is taking the risk.

Smiling man with short hair on white background.
Rob Lillis at UC Berkeley is the Chef de Mission for GETAWAY. Image via UC Berkeley / SSL.

Alan Zide, program manager for the mission at NASA Headquarters, added:

For ESCAPADE, we are evaluating a number of carpooling options to enable this critically important science while reducing costs.

Study the magnetosphere, atmosphere and solar wind of Mars

So what will ESCAPADE do on Mars? Its main mission is to study the planet’s magnetosphere, how it interacts with the solar wind and the processes leading to its atmospheric leak. Specifically, he will analyze how the magnetic field of Mars guides the flow of particles around the planet and how energy is transported from the solar wind. It will also determine which processes control the flow of energy and matter in the atmosphere.

As Shannon Curry, project scientist for the mission at UC Berkeley, noted:

This constellation of two satellites on Mars will answer in real time the major questions about the atmosphere and the solar wind.

Lillis also said that:

With simultaneous observations at two points, ESCAPADE will bring us the first ‘stereo’ image of this very dynamic environment.

Red planet with many thin colored lines standing out from it, and the sun and stars in the background.
GETAWAY will study Mars’ magnetosphere (shown here), the atmosphere and the solar wind, and how they interact. Image via Anil Rao / University of Colorado / MAVEN / NASA GSFC / NASA.

Space environments around planets

The mission is part of NASA’s plan to better understand the space environment around the various planets in the solar system, as ESCAPADE scientist Jared Leisner explained:

Our decadal heliophysical surveys identified the scientific need to study the space environments of other planets. By studying the same processes on different planets, we gain key information about how they work both on Earth and on other planets beyond the solar system.

Joy and happiness

The mission team is, of course, excited about the upcoming trip to Mars. Indeed, and unsurprisingly, Lillis said her reaction to ESCAPADE passing the last exam was

Just unbridled joy and happiness.

Last February, researchers announced that the atmosphere of Mars releases charged particles which then accumulate on the planet’s largest moon, Phobos. ESCAPADE may be able to better study this phenomenon.

Conclusion: NASA’s GETAWAY mission, consisting of the two blue and gold orbiting satellites, has successfully passed its final mission exam. It will head to Mars in October 2024.

By NASA

Via UC Berkeley

About Travis Durham

Travis Durham

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