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NASA awards launch contract to Blue Origin for Mars mission

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Jeff Bezos’s privately owned space company, Blue Origin, was given its first interplanetary NASA contract on Thursday, according to the company and the U.S. space agency. The mission will launch next year and will study the magnetic field around Mars.

According to plans, NASA’s dual-spacecraft ESCAPADE mission will launch in late 2024 from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station aboard Blue Origin’s recently created New Glenn heavy-lift rocket.

The identical twin ESCAPADEs, abbreviated for Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers, will travel to Mars orbit in approximately 11 months, during which time they will gather information on the planet’s magnetosphere and its interactions with solar radiation.

The innovative NASA astronaut John Glenn, who became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962, is honored by the naming of New Glenn, which features a reusable first stage intended to be flown on at least 25 missions.

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With its smaller, suborbital New Shepard rocket, which can transport research payloads on quick, microgravity trips to the edge of space and back, Blue Origin has launched previous NASA missions.

But as Bezos’ rocket company begins to compete with SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and other major players for flights to low-Earth orbit and beyond, ESCAPADE gives Blue Origin another line of business with a valuable government client.

Blue Origin is one of the 13 companies that NASA chose for its Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare missions (VADR) program last year. Blue Origin is well-known for its astro-tourism business for wealthy clients and celebrities.

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By allocating less expensive NASA science missions to new rockets with an unproven track record and a higher chance of failure, VADR essentially aims to encourage private development of private space launch vehicles.

By relying on promising up-and-coming rocket services that potential commercial customers might be reluctant to use at first, NASA assumes greater risk.

According to NASA, a launch under the VADR program can cost up to $300 million. The space agency refused to reveal the ESCAPADE contract’s value, claiming that such information was proprietary. Blue Origin also declined to talk about specific financials.

Although ESCAPADE is NASA’s first launch on New Glenn, Blue Origin reports that that booster has been chosen to deliver payloads to orbit for three prominent satellite operators: Eutelsat, JSAT, and Telesat.

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As part of Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellite constellation, the company has also said that New Glenn will be used for 12 launches over the next five years.

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