Roscosmos, ESA Agree Joint Mars Research
April 9, 2012

Roscosmos, ESA Agree Joint Mars Research

Russian and European space officials on Friday agreed on a joint Mars mission to hunt for signs of life on the Red Planet, after NASA pulled the plug on its program, the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) said on April 6, reports RiaNovosti.

Despite describing the ExoMars project as the “Holy Grail” of exploration, NASA bailed out in February due to budgetary problems. That project meltdown left the ESA with few other options to launch a joint mission to Mars. The two-spacecraft mission needed a launch vehicle and the only options available after NASA´s dropout were Russia and China.

The agreement with Roscosmos now reopens the possibilities for the ExoMars program, with two planned launches -- one in 2016 and another in 2018. Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin said Friday that it had accepted the deal with the ESA to launch two missions to Mars.

The ExoMars program could be salvation for Russia´s Mars program, which has been plagued by setbacks, failed launches and systems malfunctions over the past 30 years, including the recent Phobos-Grunt mission failure that Russia hoped would have marked its space agency´s return to deep space after a 20-year absence.

Despite an agreement, the parties are remaining secretive about the talks, and the ESA declined to comment. Many uncertainties remain over the extent of Russia´s involvement and its willingness to share the financial burden of the project.

“The sides consider that the current project is feasible and represents a joint scientific interest,” said Anna Vedishcheva, a spokeswoman for Popovkin. “The sides are to sign the deal by year-end.”

A source for the Russian space industry said anonymously that the final agreement on Russia´s participation in ExoMars should be reached in November, when both sides should have a clear understanding of financing.

The European government had so far committed $1.1 billion to the ExoMars mission. But the program was suspended after NASA bowed out due to budget constraints for its own part. The price cap for the mission was initially set at $1.3 billion, but that figure could increase due to delays in getting the mission off the ground.

Popovkin said that Russia´s financing of ExoMars could be partially covered by insurance payments of 1.2 billion rubles ($40.7 million) for the lost Phobos-Grunt sample probe to Martian moon Phobos.

The ExoMars program was looking to send an orbiter to Mars in 2016 and a robot rover two years later. But that could be a real challenge. So far, neither Russia nor Europe have ever successfully managed to send a mission to Mars.

If final approval is met in November, Russia will provide the mission with a launcher and substitute the American part of the scientific payload, which will benefit Russian scientists. Data obtained during the missions will be shared by both Roscosmos and the ESA.