Esa-Nasa Mars missions' race against clock

 
West Rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars (False Colour) The orbits of Mars and Earth mean there is only one launch window every 26 months or so

Europe and America are now in a race against time to rescue their plans for joint missions to Mars.

The space agencies (Esa and Nasa) want to send an orbiting satellite to the Red Planet in 2016, followed by a large rover two years later.

But funding woes on both sides of the Atlantic have put the ventures in doubt, certainly in their present form.

Unless solutions are found soon, there is a grave danger the 2016 and 2018 launch opportunities will be missed.

Officials are now looking at the possibility of making the ExoMars missions - as they are known in Europe - smaller in scale to reduce cost, or gaining additional funds by asking the Russians to enlist in the programme.

"We are now trying for certain recovery actions so that we can still do the missions," said Alvaro Gimenez, the director of science at Esa.

"We are determined to do these missions; Esa and Nasa want to do these missions, but we have to work within the budgetary constraints on both sides. We are working into it, but against the clock," he told BBC News.

No promises

European industry says it must start full-scale work very soon on the 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter or it cannot guarantee to have the spacecraft ready for launch in 2016.

With favourable Mars launch windows only occurring roughly every 26 months, a no-show at the launch pad from the orbiter would immediately put a big question mark against the rover mission, not least because the satellite is supposed to act as the surface vehicle's relay to get pictures and other data back to Earth.

Europe does not have all the money it needs to do the missions, but anxiety has been heightened in recent days following the inability once again of Nasa to make a full commitment to the ventures.

The 2016 ExoMars orbiter

2016 orbiter and landing demonstrator
  • It would study Mars' atmosphere for sources of methane and other trace gases
  • Methane is intriguing because its presence could indicate biological activity
  • 2016 would act as the relay station for the 2018 rover when it arrives at Mars
  • It would also demonstrate European technologies for landing on planets

Esa is waiting for the Americans to provide certain assurances that they will be in a position in 2018 to provide a rocket, an interplanetary cruise stage to take the rover to Mars, and a landing system to put it on the surface.

Those assurances were expected back in June, and did not materialise.

And at the latest meeting of Esa member states in Paris last week, the delegations were informed that Nasa, because of ongoing budget uncertainty in Washington, was still not in a position to give those promises.

Without them, however, Esa will not issue the full industrial contract to proceed with the construction of the orbiter, fearing it could spend hundreds of millions of euros on the satellite but never see its main objective - the rover - land on Mars.

Industry is having to operate under authorisations that permit only the minimum works necessary to keep the 2016 satellite on track, but this arrangement cannot continue for many more weeks.

'Frustratingly close'

Officials are now looking at two options to try to break the impasse.

One would see Esa and Nasa seek additional finance outside their partnership.

The obvious candidates are the Russians, who might be persuaded to provide one of the two rockets needed for the Exomars missions if their scientists are allowed to participate in the projects. The second option is to de-scope the missions to make them less expensive. In the extreme scenarios, the possibilities here might include foregoing either the satellite mission or indeed the rover.

The 2018 ExoMars rover

MSL rover
  • An almost one-tonne rover equipped with a suite of science instruments
  • Its design would emulate a rover Nasa will send to Mars this year (above)
  • The ExoMars machine will drill below the surface for signs of life
  • It will probably cache interesting rocks for return to Earth on a later mission

More likely is a de-scoping option that drops the plan for a landing demonstrator on the 2016 mission.

Europe is keen to have a go at touching down on Mars and the current baseline design for the orbiter mission calls for a 600kg entry, descent and landing module.

This module is not an integral part of 2016's science objectives but it would give Europe important expertise for the future.

"Any de-scope we may have to face would be a loss of great importance for Europe and is something we are not ready to accept," said Dr Gimenez.

"That is why we are fighting to get back to the baseline. ExoMars is a challenging, difficult but tremendously important project if we ever want to have a robotic exploration programme in our neighbourhood in the Solar System. In ExoMars, we have all the technologies we need, so to lose any components is not good."

The irony is that negotiations between European and American engineers over who should do what on the 2018 rover is going very well.

Both sides drew up lists of non-negotiable and high-priority roles, and Europe has succeeded in winning most of what it wanted. Important roles for Europe include assembling the rover on its side of the Atlantic and using a British-designed autonomous navigation system when the vehicle is on Mars.

"The frustration is that we are very close to getting what we want, but we have to resolve this budget situation and soon," said Dr David Parker, director of science, technology and exploration at the UK Space Agency.

Asked to comment on the situation, the US space agency told BBC News: "Nasa and Esa technical teams have been conducting a joint assessment of alternative Mars exploration scenarios over the past several weeks to determine how best to meet our jointly agreed programme objectives within budgetary constraints on both sides.

"This joint Nasa-Esa technical assessment is continuing. The agency will continue to discuss and assess a plan with Esa that will not only be cost-effective, but ensure key science objectives are met."

 
Jonathan Amos, Science correspondent Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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Comments

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  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 1.

    "Europe does not have all the money it needs to do the missions..."

    Should that be "Europe does have...". I understood the ESA budget was ok regarding these missions.. unless our finances have got even worse which wouldn't suprise me. Anyway, very enjoyable artice, thanks! A breathtaking image from Mars at the top. If that doesn't inspire people nothing will.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 2.

    I don't know who told you the talks between European and American engineers is going well, but I bet they have not actually been at the meetings !
    This is no way to specify and design a Mars Rover. It will end up being a three-legged and four-humped Camel.
    If Europe wants to do a Mars Rover mission then it needs to define it properly, resisting the temptation to add on 'bells-and-whistles'

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 3.

    Let us be very clear.
    The original objective for ExoMars was to put a Rover on Mars to drill into the sub-surface and collect samples for analysis of life-bearing evidence.
    NASA committed itself to providing their existing Mars Orbiters to relay the data back to Earth.
    No ESA Orbiter; No Technology Demonstrator Lander.
    I am not saying they are not important, BUT they must be funded separately.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 4.

    JUST NOW
    @prophet_samuel Member States at their Ministerial Council in 2008 put 850m euros on the table in the full knowledge that the Director General would be back at some future date to get the additional 150m euros he said he needed to carry through the project. So this is not just an American problem; the Europeans are short also.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 5.

    @Stuart The issue of uncoupling 2016 from 2018 is an interesting one. Esa insists on treating them financially, programmatically, and technically as a single endeavour - and one of the Member States that is most insistent on that point is the UK, because it would not want to move forward on 2016 without firm assurances on 2018 (which is where virtually all its contribution is tied up).

 

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