Was there once life on Mars?
Rocket Lab has been awarded a contract to design and build two Photon spacecraft for a scientific mission to the Red Planet that could shed light on how it lost its once-habitable atmosphere.
The "Escapade" (Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers) mission, led by the University of California, Berkeley, will see two Photons blast off for Mars aboard a Nasa-provided rocket in 2024.
Rocket Lab first launched a Photon - its first in-house-designed and built spacecraft - in September last year. The Photon has a "Leo configuration" for guiding payloads into the right position in low-Earth orbit and an "interplanetary configuration".
Following an 11-month interplanetary cruise twin Photons, named Blue and Gold, will orbit the Red Planet. Using their dual viewpoint, they will then explore how the solar wind strips atmosphere away from Mars - allowing for a better understanding of how its climate has changed over time.
Escapade becomes the third interplanetary mission in Rocket Lab's pipeline. The Kiwi-American company is due to ferry a Nasa satellite into lunar orbit later this year (as part of the buildup to the American space agency's plan to return humans to the moon by mid-decade). And Rocket Lab is planning to send a Photon to Venus by 2023 as part of a privately-funded passion project driven by founder and CEO Peter Beck. The Venus probe will hunt for signs of life in the clouds, where phosphine (a byproduct of elementary life) was recently detected by astronomers in the UK.
"This is a hugely promising mission that will deliver big science in a small package," Beck says.
"Planetary science missions have traditionally costed hundreds of millions of dollars and taken up to a decade to come to fruition.
"Our Photon spacecraft for Escapade will demonstrate a more cost-effective approach to planetary exploration that will increase the science community's access to our solar system for the better."
Rocket Lab comms director Morgan Bailey said the Kiwi-American company can't put a price on the Mars contract right now, but will reveal it once the project reaches the build stage - the timing of which is subject to a Nasa design review in July.
Today's news is a pep-up for Rocket Lab after something of a monthus horribilis that saw it lose an Electron Rocket on May 15 and, later that month, ordered to pay an engineer $100,000 for unjustified dismissal before running into flak over keeping its $2.85m Covid wage subsidy in what turned out to be a profitable period.
A Companies Office filing says the Kiwi-American company's NZ operation made a $1.1m profit for the year to December 31, 2020 (versus a $32,000 loss in 2019) as the pandemic kept revenue flat at $90 million.
"The detail published by the Companies Office is NZ-only," Bailey said.
Rocket Lab - which is set to list on the Nasdaq with a US$4.1b valuation - is projecting US$1.6b in annual revenue by 2027, with its much larger Neutron rocket driving an earnings surge from its first launch in 2024.
On May 24, the company quietly pushed out its US listing timeframe from expected by June 30 to expected by September 30.
• Read about Rocket Lab's hiring drive in the Herald's Out of Workers series.