October 20, 2008

Europe’s ExoMars Mission Gets Two-Year Delay

Europe's flagship space mission to Mars will likely be delayed by two years.

Due to the project's high cost, the ExoMars rover, which will search for signs of life on the Red Planet, will not launch until 2016.

Governments say the 1.2bn-euro price tag is deemed to be too high and space officials have been asked to find ways to reduce it.

One possibility would be securing more financial and technical involvement from the Americans and the Russians.

"This way we could retain the full splendor of the mission and not reduce its scientific capability," said European Space Agency (ESA) spokesman Franco Bonacina.

ExoMars is now dealing with this second big delay, as ESA had already pushed back the launch from 2011 to late 2013 as engineers grappled with the early stages of the mission's design.

The rover project was approved by space ministers in 2005 and was supposed to be a fairly small venture costing no more than 650m euros. But as the project developed, it was decided the endeavor should be upgraded, to provide a bigger, more capable vehicle; and one that could carry a much broader range of science instruments.

But the upgrades skyrocketed the overall cost of the project and the prime contractor, Thales Alenia Space, estimated the final price tag would be 1.2bn euros.

Italy, the lead nation on ExoMars, made it clear recently that it was not going to put any more cash into the mission; and with no other nations offering to make up the large shortfall in the budget, a delay became inevitable.

The November 2013 departure is now pushed back to January or February 2016 because Red Planet missions are only launched when Earth and Mars are favorably aligned.

Europe's space ministers must make the final decision on ExoMars' future. They will meet in The Hague at the end of November to set out Europe's space policy.

But officials maintain that options will be sought to reduce the financial impact of ExoMars, possibly by asking the Russians and the US to take a greater stake in the mission. The US, for example, is already funding the development of two instruments.

But the Americans have budget woes in their own Mars program, with their next rover - the Mars Science Laboratory - also heading way over budget.

The ExoMars delay will come as a bitter blow to Europe's scientists. It is the biggest, most expensive robotic mission in the current timeline; and is the flagship venture of ESA's Aurora program, its roadmap to explore the Solar System.

Professor Andrew Coates, of UCL's Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UK, is staying upbeat about the decision.

"It's disappointing to be going to Mars later rather than sooner," said Coates.

"Our team is very busy building hardware and writing documents. But it seems the only way of launching early would be to dramatically de-scope the mission, which would limit the science objectives.

"ExoMars is going to the heart of one of the most significant questions for mankind - it's all about looking for past or present life beyond Earth, and that has to be done properly. The excitement of this mission will be worth the wait."

Scientists and engineers will at least be pleased that the need for a larger mission has been recognized. And for those ESA member states that are very keen on ExoMars but are troubled by the high cost, such the UK, the delay gives them more time to sort their financing.

Europe's Beagle 2 robot, the countries only attempt to date to land on Mars, was lost on entry to the Martian atmosphere in 2003. But Europe's Mars Express satellite, which carried Beagle 2 to the planet, continues to return exceptional pictures and other remote-sensing data.


Image Courtesy Of Google

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