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Europe keeps hopes of Mars missions alive

Posted on behalf of Edwin Cartlidge.

ESA, Ted Stryk

Member states of the European Space Agency (ESA) meeting in Paris yesterday decided to continue funding the development of the ExoMars missions until a final decision is taken on the project around the end of the year.

ExoMars envisages launching two missions to the Red Planet. The first, scheduled for 2016, would feature an orbiter making measurements of trace gases in the Martian atmosphere, while the second, which it is hoped will take off in 2018, would see a rover landed on the surface of the planet to search for signs of life.

ExoMars was to have been a joint undertaking between ESA and NASA but the US agency pulled out last year following budgetary problems. The Europeans are now working on a new partnership with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, who are expected to provide Proton rockets to launch both missions. ESA, however, will nevertheless have to stump up more money for the project, up from its original contribution that was capped at €1 billion (US$1.25 billion) to around €1.2 billion. With member states having so far promised €850 million, the missions face a shortfall of around €350 million.

A spokesman for ESA’s director general Jean-Jacques Dordain says that the agency is currently working on securing several lines of funding to fill the gap. One of these is to ask member states to up their existing commitments as well as using the joining fees from two new members, Poland and Romania. ESA is also hoping that Russia can provide a Proton rocket for its recently approved JUICE mission to Jupiter, scheduled to take off in 2022 , so freeing up additional funds for ExoMars. In addition, says the spokesman, ESA may transfer €50 million from its science programme (ExoMars being part of the exploration programme), although he stresses that this would not lead to any other missions being cancelled.

At yesterday’s meeting, member states agreed to release another €80 million to industry to continue developing the 2016 mission and to start work on the 2018 follow up. The rest of the funding will then need to be secured ahead of a meeting of ministers scheduled for November. A final decision on whether or not to go ahead with ExoMars will then come either at this ministerial meeting or in an ESA council meeting just beforehand, says the spokesman.

Regarding the now limited time to get the missions in to space, he says that “the risk is never zero, but it is feasible to launch in 2016, and also in 2018. Nobody wants to go beyond these windows.”

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