June 9, 2009

NASA To Consider Partnering With ESA For Mars Missions

Due to budget constraints, US space exploration agency NASA could be considering plans to team up with the European Space Agency by 2016 in a series of trips to the Red Planet.

NASA has been the leader in Mars exploration for almost half a century, but plans to collaborate with the ESA could be forthcoming later this month, according to the Associated Press.

NASA's space sciences chief Ed Weiler said last month, that a joint venture between the two space agencies could be the best option for future exploration, "if we can lose a little bit of our ego and nationalism."

"In terms of willingness, we all agree that we have to work together. The discussion is not on the 'if,' it's on the 'how' we work together," said Marcello Coradini, the ESA's coordinator for solar system missions.

Ultimately, the decision to create a partnership between the two agencies will rely on funding. NASA has been forced to cut back on technology spending since its decision to delay the launch of its Mars Science Laboratory to 2011.

ESA has also been faced with similar budget constraints. The agency is struggling to accumulate funding needed to launch its ExoMars rover by 2016.

A NASA-ESA partnership is seen by both agencies as the best solution for being able to send both exploration missions to the Red Planet on schedule. However, the source of funding for a rocket that would send both rovers to Mars is still undetermined.

"We reverse the shared responsibilities. As with any good family, one day it's the husband doing the dishes and another day it's the wife," said Coradini. "If it's always the husband or always the wife, then we're bound for a divorce."

Still, some critics of the partnership say it would dilute the US agency's competitive edge over its international peers.

"NASA should be showing off its stuff and not saying, 'We can't do it unless we have the cooperation,'" Robert Zubrin, a former Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) engineer who now heads the Mars Society advocacy group, told the AP.

NASA's history of international partnerships includes collaboration with the European and Italian space agencies to launch the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and its moon Titan.

Additionally, NASA has announced plans to partner with the ESA in a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa. The mission is slated for 2020.

The new partnership discussion stems from the reality that "it has become too expensive for one nation to pay to go to Mars alone, especially with a long-term goal of returning Martian rocks and soil to Earth estimated to cost at least $5 billion," said the AP.

The successes of previous missions have raised more questions about whether or not the Red Planet could sustain microbial life. A substantial amount of funding is needed in order to provide answers to this question.

"Now the question is, where do we go from here?" said Scott Hubbard, a former NASA Mars czar.


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