Rocket Lab wins NASA contract for Mars spacecraft as interplanetary missions become less costly
15 Jun 2021
A conceptual rendering of the two ESCAPADE spacecraft in orbit around Mars.
Rocket Lab, which is nearing the close of its SPAC deal to go public, on Tuesday announced it won an early contract that may send two of its Photon spacecraft on a mission to Mars in 2024.
NASA, under its Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program, awarded Rocket Lab with a design contract for the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE) mission. The goal is to send to spacecraft into Martian orbit to study the makeup of the planet’s magnetosphere, to better understand how solar wind removes atmosphere over time.
While the mission’s total cost has yet to be released, Rocket Lab’s microwave oven-sized Photon spacecraft represent a low cost method of conducting an interplanetary mission, which often cost hundreds of millions of dollars or more. Photon is the core of Rocket Lab’s space systems business, with the company expanding last year beyond building rockets into building versatile spacecraft as well.
“Traditionally how interplanetary missions would be done, you’re talking about large decadal missions – generally with a ‘B’ [for billions] in front of it,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told CNBC.
“What we set out to do … was reassess and say, ‘well hang on a minute, for some 10s of millions of dollars, why can’t you go with a smaller spacecraft to another planet and actually do really meaningful science?'” Beck said.
Advancements by private companies in rockets and spacecraft have “absolutely” brought down the cost of interplanetary missions, Beck said.
“Plus, it’s just cool,” Beck said.
Rocket Lab completed the preliminary design review on ESCAPADE for NASA. The contract will undergo further reviews, with the space agency expected to decide by the end of July whether the company builds the pair of spacecraft.
NASA has not revealed the mission’s cost as the next two phases, the build process and the selection of a rocket for the launch, have yet to be announced. But part of the overall objective is to keep costs down. For comparison, a pair communications relay cube satellites built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory performed a technology demonstration in 2018 with the arrival of the InSight lander mission – for a cost of $18.5 million.
“The whole point of this is to try and do this as low cost as possible and get the most amount of scientific bang for the buck. So I think you will look back on this mission in hindsight and think ‘man, that was incredibly good value,'” Beck said. “You talk to a planetary scientist and maybe they get to do two missions in their entire professional career. And we’re like, ‘that’s just sucks, we need to increase the iteration speed here.'”
The moon, Venus and then Mars
ESCAPADE is not the company’s first interplanetary mission on deck, either. Rocket Lab has previously been awarded another NASA mission for Photon called CAPSTONE, which is scheduled to send a cube satellite into orbit around the moon later this year. Beck said a launch date should be announced “pretty soon.” Additionally, Rocket Lab is flying a private mission to Venus, also using a Photon spacecraft, for launch in 2023.
“The Capstone mission to the Moon is what has really enabled a lot of this in the beginning … and is very similar design to the Venus mission, and we’ve leveraged that further with the Mars ESCAPADE missions,” Beck said. “We’re really trying to establish ourselves … if you’ve got some smaller interplanetary missions with big science objectives that you want to achieve, then we’re your one stop shop.”
Rocket Lab’s “Photon” satellite platform, on the right, is shown at the company’s factory alongside an upper stage of the Electron rocket.
The interplanetary Photon are not like the spacecraft that Rocket Lab launches into low Earth orbit, as it needs a beefed up propulsion system, the ability to survive extreme temperature swings, a more powerful radio, and strengthening against radiation, among other things.
“It’s just crazy, crazy s— that you would never have to think about, but that’s the stuff that we’re really good at,” Beck said. “And just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it needs to be a billion dollars, it just means it’s going to be a bit smarter.”
NASA will later pick a rocket to launch ESCAPADE, and Beck said Rocket Lab hopes to have its coming Neutron rocket ready in time to compete for the contract – “but we were happy to build spacecraft like this for other missions,” he added.
CEO Peter Beck stands at the base of the fairing, or nosecone, of the Neutron rocket the company is developing.
When Rocket Lab earlier this year announced plans to go public by merging with special acquisition firm Vector, the company revealed it booked $2 million in space systems revenue last year. Beck has “lofty” aspirations for building and selling spacecraft, but said it’s already “exceeding those” – which is good, as Rocket Lab’s SPAC presentation forecast the unity to hit $656 million in revenue by 2027, from $2 million last year.
Working through Electron’s failure
The Electron rocket booster for the company’s 20th launch and second attempted at a splashdown recovery.
Rocket Lab’s most recent Electron rocket launch, its 20th flight to date, fell short of orbit after a failure following the ignition of the vehicle’s second stage engine. Beck says the failure was caused by a “layering of really complicated, unlikely probabilities on top of each other.”
The company recreated the failure a week after the launch by taking a rocket booster off of its production line, cutting its tank in half and sticking “the whole second stage in a vacuum chamber,” he said.
“We had to do some pretty bad stuff to be able to replicate the failure,” Beck said.
While Rocket Lab has not yet completed its internal review, the company is nearly finished. The failure was Rocket Lab’s second in the past twelve months, but Beck emphasized that the company’s problems are “not unheard of” in the launch industry, referencing the past failures of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets and Arianespace’s Vega rockets.
“This industry is pretty cruel,” Beck said, adding that the situation “is the reality of bringing a launch vehicle up and and also the reality of flying a lot. It’s very easy to have an 100% flight record if your rockets are always on the ground.”
SPAC closure on track
Rocket Lab in March announced its SPAC merger and Beck said the “original timeframes are holding” for a close by the end of the second quarter, meaning the end of June.
The SPAC deal gives Rocket Lab an enterprise valuation of $4.1 billion, with the company expecting to have about $750 million in cash after the merger is complete.
“We’re looking in super good shape,” Beck said.