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Space agencies battle to keep Mars mission on track

Delays and funding problems are threatening to push back the planned launch of ExoMars, a European and Russian rover designed to search for life on the red planet.

ESA Exomars robot

ESA

They had originally planned to launch the mission in 2018, but the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, may now have to wait until 2020.

ESA has confirmed that problems with the design of the lander’s descent module — a component for which Roscosmos takes the lead — has delayed a key milestone: a health check of the entire mission called the System Preliminary Design Review. Technical problems with the module include the need to increase the clearance between its landing platform and the ground, to allow for a landing on large rocks.

Originally planned for early July, the review has been delayed until mid-September, says Jorge Vago, ESA’s ExoMars project scientist.  When the review board concludes in early November, it hopes to confirm ExoMars’ design and procurement plans, and also address whether the schedule remains feasible, he adds.

A further problem is funding. After NASA dropped out of the €1.2 billion (US$1.6 billion) mission in 2011 and Roscosmos took its place, ESA was forced to increase its contribution. Vago says that ExoMars is still short of “a couple of hundred million” euros. He hopes that, once the review is complete, the cash will be confirmed during a meeting of ESA’s governing body, the council of ministers, planned for early December.

If ExoMars misses its 2018 launch, the mission would have to be delayed until 2020 because Earth and Mars are only suitably aligned every 26 months.

How likely this is to happen depends on whom you ask. Thomas Passvogel, head of the projects department in ESA’s directorate of science and robotic exploration, predicts that the project will be able to absorb the delay and still launch on time. Other ExoMars scientists who did not want to be named told Nature‘s news team that planning for a potential launch in 2020 had been going on for some time, although this did not mean a delay was inevitable. Meanwhile, a report last week by Russian journalist Anatoly Zak claimed that many on the inside view the delay as “inevitable”. ESA described the article as “speculative”.

Vago says that if faced with further problems, the agencies would do everything they can to stick to a 2018 launch — including reshuffling the schedule and working double shifts, not least because a shift to a later date would mean finding even more funding to cover two more years’ costs. “We would not consider a launch delay lightly,” he adds.

If ExoMars 2018 becomes ExoMars 2020, an intriguing twist in the plot is that the delay would see the European mission competing with NASA’s next Martian venture — the Mars 2020 Rover, which last week announced the instruments it will take to the planet.

The US-led mission will look at how habitable Mars may have once been, with a focus on selecting samples that could eventually be brought back to Earth. Meanwhile ExoMars, armed with a drill and wide-ranging analytical laboratory, will concentrate on looking for signs of Martian life in situ, which could be preserved up to 2 metres under the surface.

Jack Mustard, a Mars scientist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, says that the two projects have sufficiently different goals and landing sites to ensure they remain distinct even if they operate at the same time.

More detrimental for ExoMars, of course, would be having to share the limelight.

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