February 11, 2008

Europe’s Mars Rover Gets an Upgrade

Jean Jacques Dordain, head of Europe's Space Agency (ESA), asked officials to rename the ExoMars mission, saying the original concept had expanded so radically in scope and cost that it is essentially now a new venture.

ExoMars will be Europe's big space exploration project in the next decade.

The agency's plan is to launch a robot rover for Mars in 2013, and put a hi-tech vehicle on the planet's surface with a range of instrumentation capable of investigating the planet's past and present life potential.

In November, Mr. Dordain will request a 650-million-euro budget for the project, nearly doubling the original funding agreed upon in 2005.

"I am asking [my officials] to find a different way to define ExoMars because if we say 'this is ExoMars', for most of the ministers it means 'over-cost'," Mr. Dordain told BBC News.

"And this is not over-cost because we are not speaking at all of the same mission; it is a completely different mission. This is to try to make ministers understand that this is not over-cost."

When the idea was first put to European space ministers three years ago, they embraced the project and even provided for more funding than was requested at the time.  But since then, as the detailed design work was carried out, it has become clear the original concept would not meet the expectations of scientists, and the ESA decided to beef up the mission.

"Today what I call 'ExoMars 2008' is different from the 'ExoMars of 2005'," Mr. Dordain said.   Indeed, the expanded ExoMars mission concept adds a launch on a heavy-lift Proton Ariane 5 rocket, vented landing bags to allow for a larger payload, a 16.5kg 'Pasteur' instrument suite, a 30kg geophysics/environment static station, study of the planet's weather, and listening for 'Marsquakes'.

"This is why I'm looking for a different name. In 2005, it was mostly a technological mission with some scientific passengers. But the interest in Mars, and specifically exobiology, meant that I had a queue of scientists wanting to go onboard ExoMars.

"Now we have a scientific mission as much as a technological mission, meaning that the ExoMars 2008 is heavier, is more complex and is more costly."

However, the increased cost may present significant challenges for some of the participating countries.  The UK in particular, which had signed up to be a lead partner on the mission, now faces having to find tens of millions of euros extra to maintain its position on the project.

Next week, the British government will reveal its new space strategy.  It has already expressed its desire to increase the country's ESA contributions, and to host a specialist ESA research center, most likely one to investigate space robotics.  Detailed legal work on the center is ongoing and the facility itself could be approved at the ESA Council meeting in The Hague in late November.

Mr. Dordain said he had been encouraged lately by the UK's attitude, which in the past he has described as "anomalous" because of the nation's relative reluctance to get involved in the agency compared with Germany, France and Italy.

"The UK is the second richest country in Europe and the sixth [largest] contributor in ESA," he told BBC News.  "And this is all the more an anomaly because there are a lot of capabilities in the UK; there is a fantastic scientific community, there are good industrial capabilities and it is a pity that the British government is not taking more benefit from these assets."


On the Net:

ExoMars Mission