Who’s Going to Mars in 2024?

We can’t go to Mars very often. The way our planets move around the sun means that the launch window to get from Earth to the Red Planet opens for about six weeks only every twenty-six months. November 2024 is one of those windows. Interest in Mars is steadily increasing, and already, private companies and government agencies are lining up to take their shot.

There are currently four groups going to Mars in 2024 — SpaceX, NASA (with Rocket Lab), JAXA (Japan), and ISRO (India). Of these, one is a private venture, one is a government project contracted to a private company, and two are fully government-managed projects.

Each have very different objectives for their respective missions and each are going about their missions in very different ways.

MissionOrganisationBudgetNew Space Impact
Uncrewed StarshipSpaceXNA5 – Paradigm Changing
EscaPADENASAUS$55 Million3 – Incremental
MMXJAXANA1 – Tangential
MOM-2ISRONA1 – Tangential

It’s also possible that one or more of these missions will not meet the 2024 deadline, or that other missions join the Hoffman Transfer party train. This article will be updated as timetables are adjusted.

SpaceX’s Uncrewed Starship Mission

Elon Musk has been eyeing the colonization of Mars as his personal reason for being for a long time. Originally, Elon wanted to use the 2024 Mars transfer window to make the first crewed mission to the Red Planet. However, in 2020, at the International Mars Society Convention, Musk reeled back that estimate, instead placing the first crewed mission in late-2026/early-2027.

This is probably for the best. Personally, I wouldn’t be all that comfortable attempting humanity’s first manned mission to Mars in a vehicle that had not even done a dry run yet. Not even NASA of the Apollo era suggested going straight in for the moon without putting a crew in orbit around it first.

Despite that, SpaceX’s intended vehicle for both the unmanned 2024 mission, and later manned version, will have substantial advantages that the Apollo astronauts did not. Musk has already stated his intentions that Starship will have flown “hundreds of times” before allowing astronauts aboard, even for Low Earth Orbit missions. Apollo conducted sixteen unmanned tests before going for flight certification and did not have the advanced technology available today. It is quite likely that Starship will have many successful missions under its belt before the 2024 window opens up.

We do not currently know what mission objectives SpaceX intends to carry out, but we can assume that they will include cargo transport for future missions and landing. They may also include in situ resource utilization to make additional fuel and oxidiser, as well as take off from the Martian surface (although this would require some very impressive robotics).

Impact on New Space of Successful Mission: 5 – Paradigm Changing

NASA’s Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers Mission (EscaPADE)

The last orbiter NASA sent to Mars was in 2014—the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN)—which cost US$582.5 million for initial launch and development, of which US$187 million was for the launch alone. Things have changed since then. The rise of commercial smallsat providers and low-cost launch services has given government agencies licence to engage far more missions than before at a fraction of the cost.

NASA’s Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers Mission (EscaPADE) is NASA’s first mission that uses these new resources to carry out real science in the orbit of Mars. Costing only US$55million and featuring not one, but two separate spacecraft, development of EscaPADE was contracted NewSpace darling Rocket Lab in June of 2021.

This will be the first time that Rocket Lab uses its new standard satellite bus offering (Photon) in a trans-Martian mission. It is not, however, the first time Photon has left Earth. At the time of writing, Rocket Lab has carried out two Low Earth Orbit missions out of their own pocket to test the hardware. They have also been contracted by NASA to fly Photon to the moon as the United State’s first flight mission in the Artemis program, which will launch on Rocket Lab’s own Electron rocket in late 2021

Many questions remain surrounding the EscaPADE Mars mission. It’s still unknown who the launch provider will be for the mission.

The most likely launcher for the EscaPADE mission is a Falcon 9 rideshare mission, possibly as a primary launch payload. If we assume a third of the mission budget goes to payload (this would be in line with similar mission costs), this gives EscaPADE a launch budget of a little over US$18 million. At a launch cost of around US$60 million, Falcon 9 could provide the mass required for both EscaPADE spacecraft and still leave plenty for secondary payloads to make up the remaining launch cost. It is worth noting that the advent of space tug technology would make these kinds of joint launches more efficient for all involved and represent a major opportunity for the NewSpace industry.

Another, more fanciful, but also far more interesting possibility, is that EscaPADE could hitch a ride on one of SpaceX’s starships that could be making the trip to Mars at almost exactly the same time. Since launch providers need to be sorted out many months or years in advance, it’s unclear if NASA is ready to gamble on this as a possibility.

Other potential launchers from a technical standpoint include ESA’s Vega rocket and Northrop Grummond’s Minotaur V, both requiring multiple launches for each of the two spacecraft. Both, however, would massively increase the cost of the mission, adding anything from US$56 million to US$82 million.

Impact on New Space of Successful Mission: 3 – Incremental

JAXA’s Martian Moons eXploration (MMX)

Japan’s Martian Moons eXploration Mission (MMX) represents a continuation of technological development that was begun with Hayabusa and continued with Hayabusa2. All three missions focus on sample retrieval in greater quantities and with greater mission complexity. But while the first two missions explored near-Earth asteroids, MMX has the duel Martian moons of Phobos and Deimos in its sights.

These missions are of particular interest to the scientific community because of the contentious nature of these moons in the formation of our solar system.

Rather than contracting out to private companies, MMX represents the continued tradition of government space agencies working together on joint missions. Key scientific instruments on MMX will be supplied by the National Centre for Space Studies (France’s space agency). These instruments themselves represent another continuation of resource surveying technology development, first used on the joint ESA/Russian ExoMars mission in 2016. Other agencies are also supplying instruments.

While this mission does not rely heavily on the private sector, what it will do is yield valuable data about the moons of Mars. These bodies have never been examined in depth before, and the two agencies have already signed agreements to make their data available to the public and scientific communities.

Impact on New Space of Successful Mission: 1 – Tangential

ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission 2 (MOM-2)

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission 2 (MOM-2) is the follow-on interplanetary mission to ISRO’s very successful first Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). MOM was intended to be a technology demonstration, weighing in at just 15kg (33lbs) of primary payload. This time around, ISRO wants to go bigger, more than quadrupling the primary payload to around 100kg (220lbs).

It is assumed that MOM-2 will focus on collecting Martian atmospheric and geological data, as did MOM, but with a greater array of instruments than did the first satellite. However, as of the time of writing, ISRO is still in the process of soliciting proposals and nothing is set in stone.

Like with JAXA’s MMX mission, MOM-2 does not rely heavily on the private sector. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the mission’s success is automatically non-existent. ISRO has a long history of providing commercial launch services to foreign customers and is currently in the process of massively expanding its own commercial division by spinning off ISRO tech into the private sector. It is not impossible that some technological developments made on MOM-2 may find their way into the hands of India’s NewSpace ventures, or that ISRO themselves may one day provide interplanetary satellite services if the market for such services materializes.

Another interesting aspect of this mission is cost and how it compares to the first mission. The original Mars Orbiter Mission was heralded as a triumph of efficiency and pragmatism, costing only US$74 million (equivalent). Fast forward to today, and such prices still look very respectable, even when compared to NASA’s EscaPADE mission discussed above (US$55 million). The missions are reasonably comparable. We currently don’t know what the budget for MOM-2 is, but if ISRO can successfully keep the lid on costs, it could potentially demonstrate the financial wherewithal to compete with Rocket Lab in this infant emerging market, if it so chose.

Impact on New Space of Successful Mission: 1 – Tangential

Article last revised — August 2021 | Next article review — August 2022

James Coombs

James is a space and business enthusiast of fifteen years. Marrying these two elements makes him unreasonably happy. James also enjoys working out, adventure, and writing fiction that doesn't take itself too seriously.

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