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Rolling the Dice with Cheaper Missions to Mars

Mars,NASA,Rocket Lab
Georgina Torbet
Simran Singh
October 19, 202110:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

It bears repeating that space exploration is really expensive.

Budgets for large missions run to the billions of dollars. From designing a fool-proof spacecraft, to finally launching it through Earth's atmosphere, every step is planned, tested, and executed with an astonishing attention to detail. At astonishing costs.

But a new mission named EscaPADE (Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers) is trying a different approach. The mission involves a pair of Mars-orbiting satellites designed, built, and launched for just $80 million—a budget that is a fraction of a typical Mars mission.

Scheduled for launch in 2024, the satellites will perform a investigation into how Mars continues to lose its atmosphere, using relatively simple instruments. Acting as a pair, one satellite will observe the atmospheric loss as it happens, while the other observes disturbances in the solar wind thought to cause this loss—the first time both aspects of this phenomena will be observed together in real-time.

That's an ambitious goal for a mission with a budget that's less than 15% the cost of another Mars orbiter, NASA's MAVEN. Supercluster spoke to the principal investigator for the EscaPADE mission, Rob Lillis of the University of California, Berkeley, to learn how it's possible to launch a mission to another world for so little cost.

One Shot

Space missions, especially planetary missions, are expensive because there's no way to fix the hardware after launch. So missions are traditionally designed with multiple layers of redundancy, with one or more backups for every component, so that no single point of failure can take down a mission.

This approach is great for making robust explorers which last a long time. Just recently, the beloved Hubble Space Telescope was saved from retirement when part of its 1980s computer system failed, because it could switch to backup hardware it carries for exactly this reason. Or think of the Mars rover Opportunity, which was designed for an initial mission of three months and ended up running for nearly 15 years.

This approach has its costs. “Redundancy is a double-edged sword,” Lillis tells Supercluster. “If you build fully redundant systems, then they can be very, very complicated to test.” That's because every piece of hardware has to be tested with every other piece of hardware in every possible configuration—a challenge which can quickly become overwhelming and take months to years.

Now, though, there's another option.

“We're seeingthe beginningof what you might call Space 3.0.”

“With the increasing commercialization of space, with common off-the-shelf parts and modular systems which are built identically for many missions, you can do little tweaks here and there, but nothing is bespoke the way it would have been for a traditional NASA mission,” Lillis says.

Risky Business

The EscaPADE mission is taking advantage of recent developments in the commercialization of space by contracting out the building of the two satellites to New Zealand-founded company Rocket Lab. This company 3D prints many of its rocket parts and works on a principle of vertical integration, in which virtually all of its parts are developed in-house. Rocket Lab even has its own private spaceport on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand so it can offer flexible launches.

Rocket Lab has taken the project under a contract that is unusual in high-stakes aerospace industry. Typically, when a manufacturer takes on the job of building a spacecraft, there will be an initial budget with an understanding that the customer will have to cover additional costs that arise during the process. Rocket Lab, though, is confident it can deliver the satellites without running over budget. The launch company, now based in Los Angeles, has faced scrutiny recently after a report on labor issues and after suffering two recent launch failures and payload losses within the span of a year.

With this lower cost approach, however, comes a greater risk of mission failure.

This acceptance of higher risk is so unusual that several larger aerospace companies turned down the opportunity to bid on the EscaPADE project, Lillis said. These companies have a focus on reliability embedded into their approach which makes taking on a higher risk project unappealing to them. “They don't know how to do things in any other way than extremely high reliability and extremely well tested,” he explained. “All their protocols, their systems, their quality assurance, all that is just not set up for this high risk tolerance.”

The EscaPADE satellites are designed for an initial science mission of around one year, with the possibility of a mission extension and the aim to last five years or longer, and Lillis is confident they'll make it through their mission. But if something goes wrong in that period, there won't be a a way to fix it from here on Earth. And that's assuming the spacecraft makes it safely to Mars, which is far from a simple task. Almost half of all Mars missions to-date have failed.

In the 1990s, NASA tried a philosophy called Faster, Better, Cheaper, which reduced testing and oversight of missions in an attempt to cut costs in the 1990s. Two Mars missions were launched under this program—the Mars Polar Orbiter and the Mars Climate Orbiter—and both were lost on arrival at the red planet. There wasn't even any telemetry data from the failures that researchers could look at.

Space experts tend to be more understanding of these kinds of failures than the public. Where the public might see only millions of dollars lost on a project which never produced useful science, those working in the space industry know from experience how difficult it is to foresee every possible factor in a mission. Even with thorough testing, “you know you can't possibly encompass the full range of scenarios the spacecraft will actually experience,” Lillis said.

The potential benefits of a more streamlined approach might outweigh the risks though. If you can get, say, 80% or more of the reliability of a typical mission for one tenth of the cost, isn't that worth trying? It's a fair question as the space industry pushes fore more open access to space. That means cheaper space travel for both humans and payloads.

NASA and its Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program is now funding three missions including EscaPADE. While major NASA missions will undoubtedly continue to operate at very high levels of reliability, the agency is dipping its toe into the water of higher risk, lower cost planetary missions. 

“Five years ago, NASA would never have done this,” Lillis said.

“It was notin NASA's DNAback thento accept ahigher risk of failure.”

But now, a small sliver of NASA's overall budget will go to higher-risk missions to see whether recent innovations can make economically sustainable missions feasible, although it remains to be seen whether the public is ready to accept this riskier approach. After all, as Lillis put it, “The public expects NASA to succeed.”

But he sees the agency's decision as a wise one: “Just like any savvy investor, NASA is putting one or two percent of their portfolio into something that potentially has a much higher science per dollar return, in exchange for accepting somewhat higher risk.”

While EscaPADE and its fellow SIMPLEx missions will remain a small, experimental program for now, they show one vision of what the future of planetary science might look like. With more and more companies innovating space technologies, space agencies have an opportunity to get a lot more science bang for their buck.

“I think it's shown a lot of courage on NASA's part to say 'Yes, we are accepting a higher risk of failure,'” Lillis said. “And this will look bad if one of these missions fails. But having a varied portfolio is healthy, and allows more and better science to be done.”

Georgina Torbet
Simran Singh
October 19, 202110:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)