NASA announced Wednesday that it will send two scientific spacecraft to Mars aboard Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket in August 2024.
Musk’s SpaceX company was initially set to carry the NASA payload on a Falcon Heavy rocket in October of this year, alongside NASA’s Psyche mission, which was bound for an asteroid.
However, the space agency pulled the additional crafts from the launch because the Falcon Heavy would not put them on the proper trajectory to insert them into Mars’ orbit.
Last week SpaceX’s next-generation Starship Rocket — the largest ever built — launched on its second-ever test flight but the vehicle detonated before reaching its target altitude in what SpaceX called a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.”
The new timeline announcement comes shortly after Musk’s Starship rocket – the ship he wants to use to ferry crews to the moon and eventually Mars – blew up in a second launch attempt.
An identical pair of spacecraft making up NASA’s Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorer (ESCAPADE) mission will hitch a ride on the unproven Blue Origin New Glenn rocket, each carrying three experiments to investigate the effects of solar winds on the planet’s magnetosphere.
This launch is part of a broader NASA effort to use private contractors to get to Mars more cheaply.
“By using a lower level of mission assurance and commercial best practices for launching rockets, these highly flexible contracts help broaden access to space through lower launch costs,” wrote NASA officials in a statement about ESCAPADE.
The US space agency has made a habit of swinging by our planetary neighbor to drop off orbiters, landers, and rovers, most recently in 2020 with the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter.
Race to Mars between Musk and Bezos
NASA’s decision is the latest chapter in the billionaire space race between Musk and Bezos, which earlier this year saw each company win separate multibillion-dollar contracts with NASA to go to the moon.
NASA announced in its ESCAPADE statement: “Each satellite will carry three instruments: a magnetometer for measuring magnetic field, an electrostatic analyzer to measure ions and electrons, and a Langmuir probe for measuring plasma density and solar extreme ultraviolet flux.”
In 2021 Bezos entered space and stayed there in his own Blue Origin rocket for five minutes.
In May 2023 NASA announced Bezos’ Blue Origin had won a $3.4 billion contract to build an astronaut lunar lander.
The company pledged to invest more than that amount of its own funding. Blue’s award was widely viewed as a boon for the space industry, but the lunar-scale battle of egos has a variety of advantages for government-backed efforts.