NASA approves key funding for UC Berkeley satellite mission to Mars

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Rob Lillis/Courtesy
Following NASA's budget approval, UC Berkeley scientists and engineers prepare to launch twin satellites from the EscaPADE mission into orbit around Mars to study real-time effects of solar activity.

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A UC Berkeley-led team of scientists and engineers is one step closer to sending two satellites to Mars, following a key milestone approval from NASA on Aug. 17.

The Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers, or EscaPADE, mission will launch the twin satellites into orbit around Mars to explore the impact of solar winds on the planet’s atmosphere. NASA’s recent approval cleared the way for the team to start final designs and assembly for a 2024 launch, according to principal investigator Robert Lillis.

“Scientifically, one of the really important things that EscaPADE is doing is that it’s bridging a big gap between heliophysics, or the science of the sun, as well as planetary physics, which is in this case the planet Mars,” said project scientist Shannon Curry. “One of the things we’re looking at very carefully is exactly how the sun affects the atmosphere and the response of the atmosphere to the sun.”

The twin spacecrafts in the EscaPADE mission are essential in capturing the real-time effects of solar activity, since one can be in the solar wind and the other in the atmosphere, according to Lillis. This essentially allows scientists to simultaneously understand the cause and effect of solar wind on the atmosphere.

EscaPADE is one of the winning projects selected for NASA’s new Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration, or SIMPLEx, program. With a budget of about $55 million, the EscaPADE project is around one-tenth of traditional NASA budgets.

“NASA thought, ‘Can we get way better bang for our buck, like can we get way more science per dollar, if we’re willing to accept a higher risk of failure,’” Lillis said. “EscaPADE and two other missions … we’re the three guinea pigs for NASA to see whether this approach is actually a legit way of getting far more science for a much lower cost.”

The recent approval released about $42 million of the $55 million budget to fund the final designs and assembly phase before launch. While UC Berkeley is the managing institution where most of the instruments and science are being developed for the mission, it also has four main partners: Rocket Lab, UCLA, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Advanced Space for various project components.

NASA’s approval comes after five years of work for the project and many obstacles. While the satellites were originally intended to launch aboard the Psyche rocket in October 2022, logistical changes caused NASA to find an alternative rocket for EscaPADE by February 2022.

“We had to do so much redesign,” Lillis said. “To get to this point for our new design and our new team to be validated by NASA gives us a big vote of confidence. That just felt really good for me and for the whole team; we’re really excited.”

Contact Cindy Liu at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @_CindyLiu_.