Newglenn pathfinder.jpg.

Blue Origin rolled out a New Glenn “pathfinder” vehicle to the pad in February for tests ahead of the
rocket’s first launch. Credit: Blue Origin

WASHINGTON — A NASA Mars smallsat mission is slated to launch in late September on the first flight of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, assuming the vehicle is ready in time.

In a presentation at a meeting of a planetary protection committee of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) in London April 24, Nick Benardini, NASA’s planetary protection officer, listed a Sept. 29 date for the launch of Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE) mission, a pair of smallsats that will go into orbit around Mars to measure the interaction of the planet’s magnetosphere with the solar wind.

NASA selected Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket to launch ESCAPADE, awarding the company a $20 million task order through the agency’s Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare contract in February 2023 for the mission. The award at the time mentioned only a late 2024 launch, with the expectation that ESCAPADE would be on one of the first, if not the first, flight of the rocket.

Benardini mentioned ESCAPADE in his COSPAR presentation to discuss how the mission was complying with planetary protection requirements, intended to prevent any contamination of Mars, during the assembly of the spacecraft and launch preparations at Cape Canaveral. “They’re slated to be launching Sept. 29 with Blue Origin,” he said.

That is the most precise date yet offered for the mission, which remains in line to be the first flight of New Glenn. At a NASA advisory committee meeting last November, an agency official said the launch would take place in about a year, and other presentations had listed launch dates between August and November for the mission.

A slide about the status of the ESCAPADE mission, shown during breaks at an April 24 meeting of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group in lieu of a formal presentation, also listed a launch date of Sept. 18 to 29 for the mission, adding that it would be on the inaugural flight of New Glenn.

Blue Origin itself has not announced a formal date for the first New Glenn launch beyond the company’s expectation that it will take place this year after several years of delays. In February, Blue Origin rolled out a “pathfinder” model of the rocket to the pad at Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 36. The company used the vehicle for testing pad infrastructure, including loading propellants onto the rocket.

“Everything on the pad is real New Glenn hardware,” the company said in a Feb. 21 statement about the pathfinder vehicle. That vehicle, though, lacked BE-4 engines in its first stage, and some components of the pathfinder were not flight hardware.

[25 Apr 2024] NASA planning September launch of Mars smallsat mission on first New Glenn
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