NASA has picked a twin orbiter mission being built by a partnership of the University of California-Berkeley and the private rocket company Rocket Lab to place two smallsats in orbit around Mars to study how the harsh environment of space might be causing the red planet to lose its atmosphere.
The entire project is dubbed ESCAPADE (an insanely contrived acronym) but the two smallsats have been dubbed “Blue” and “Gold.”
The mission builds on decades of experience at SSL in building satellite instruments and fleets of spacecraft to explore regions around Earth, the moon and Mars, specializing in magnetic field interactions with the wind of particles from the sun. Each of the two satellites, named after UC Berkeley’s school colors, will carry instruments built at SSL to measure the flow of high energy electrons and ionized oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules escaping from Mars, magnetic field detectors built at UCLA and a probe to measure slower or thermal ions built at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
With twin satellites, it is possible to measure conditions simultaneously at two places around the planet, Lillis said, allowing scientists to connect plasma conditions at one site to the escaping ion flux at another. Over the course of the mission, the two satellites will change positions to map the upper atmosphere and magnetosphere of nearly the entire planet from an altitude of between 150 and 10,000 kilometers.
Maybe the most important aspect of this mission however is not what it will learn at Mars, but how it is being financed and built. NASA is only paying about $80 million, a tiny amount compared to most past unmanned planetary probes. The university in turn is buying Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite structure rather than building the satellites from scratch. It will configure the instruments to fit into that ready made satellite body, thus saving time and money.
By doing it this way NASA and the planetary science community is increasingly relying on private companies to provide them their planetary probes, rather than building such things by hand themselves, at much greater cost. The result is a growing and thriving private commercial sector that owns and builds its own planetary probes, for profit.
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