In February, President Obama revealed NASA’s budget for 2013. At $17.7 billion the agency is taking a hit, but the biggest loser is the agency’s Mars program which has been allocated $318 million less than last year. This funding cut has forced NASA out of ExoMars, the joint mission with the European Space Agency (ESA) designed to culminate with a sample return mission. Without NASA, ESA is left in pieces; the US agency was responsible for the launch vehicles and interplanetary spacecraft, not to mention substantial funding. Now, ESA is hoping the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos will take NASA’s place. This partnership could be without payoff since neither country has had great luck with Mars. Particularly Russia, whose missions have been thwarted by the mythical galactic ghoul.
ESA’s first mission designed to explore the surface of Mars was Beagle 2. The small lander was launched as part of the agency’s Mars Express program, which was designed to develop hardware quickly and cheaply and deliver it to the red planet during a relatively close encounter with Earth.
Beagle 2 launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on June 2, 2003. Its target, the flat sedimentary basin, Isidis Planitia, which sits at a low altitude, was chosen deliberately to give the lander more time to use the natural breaking effects of the Martian atmosphere.
On Christmas day, 2003, Beagle 2 arrived at Mars inside a clamshell shaped case. After entering the atmosphere, its parachute deployed. Just 0.16km above its landing point, a series of airbags inflated to encase the lander in a protective cocoon. Upon impact, the parachute separated and the payload rolled along the surface until it came to a halt.The airbags deflated and the clamshell opened to reveal Beagle 2. The lander would wake up, then begin its search for life using specially designed instruments to analyze Mars‘ atmosphere and geochemical constitution.
At least, that was the plan. ESA lost contact with Beagle 2 when it entered the Martian atmosphere. This was expected, but the continued silence wasn’t. Beagle 2 was supposed to send data to Earth via the Mars Express orbiter, but the expected communications never came.
Unfortunately, Beagle 2 broadcast no data during its descent, so no one could figure out where the mission had turned sour. Right from the start, when ESA began developing and testing the spacecraft’s landing system, there were problems. The “express” directive didn’t help either.
The most important part of Beagle 2’s landing system was its parachute, which was developed and built in just 15 weeks in accordance with standard qualifications of Martian flight. Two identical parachutes were made: one for the mission and one for preflight testing. The test parachute was put through two weeks of drop tests in Arizona, a single wind tunnel test which proved the design would inflate fully in 145km per hour winds, and a single strength test which had engineers drag it behind a truck. The other piece of the landing puzzle, the airbags, were tested once — the inflated configuration was successfully dropped straight down.
Any number of things could have happened — a failure of the parachute, a tear in the airbags from landing on a rock, a dust storm, or heavy winds throwing it into a mountain. ESA tried calling Beagle 2 through the Mars Express orbiter but never got an answer. NASA Mars Odyssey also failed to reach the lander and images of Beagle 2’s landing zone shed no light on its fate. On February 6, 2004, ESA declared the lander lost.
Although its attempt to land on Mars was disastrous, ESA managed to put spacecraft in orbit fairly easily. But ExoMars is more complicated than anything ESA has previously tried. As per the original schedule, NASA would launch two missions. In 2016, ESA’s payload would be an entry, descent and landing demonstrator module (EDM) and an orbiter, and in 2018, it would send a rover as part of NASA’s landed payload. Now, the ESA has a lander, an orbiter and a rover, and no way to get them to Mars.
Roscosmos could pick up where NASA left off, but Russia, and its former incarnation as the Soviet Union, has had terrible luck on Mars.
The Soviet Union was the first country to send a spacecraft to Mars; Mars 1 launched in 1962 but was lost en route. Its backups, Mars 1962A and Mars 1962B both failed to reach Earth orbit in 1962. Mars 2 and Mars 3, each carrying a lander, reached the red planet in 1971. Mars 2 crashed when its parachute failed, and while Mars 3 landed, it did so in a dust storm and went silent after communicating with Earth for just 90 seconds. In 1973, Mars 4 and Mars 7 flew towards the red planet but missed it entirely, Mars 5 orbited for 22 days before going silent, and Mars 6 reached the surface but never communicated with Earth.
In 1988, two missions to Mars’ moon Phobos failed; Phobos 1 and Phobos 2 succumbed to communications breakdowns. The follow-up mission launched in 1996, Mars 96, got stuck in Earth orbit. In 2011, Phobos-Grunt, which was supposed to fulfill the Mars 96 mission goals and return a soil sample form Phobos, also got stuck in Earth orbit.
Given Russia’s track record on Mars, a partnership could bring more problems to the ExoMars missions than ESA is anticipating. But, it also might save ExoMars. Russia can realistically cover most of NASA’s planned contributions, though the change in partners would leave ESA alone with another $1.3 billion needed to see the mission through to completion. It’s likely that if ExoMars moves forward, it will look very different than planned. Regardless, it promises to be an exciting mission and a significant one for ESA.