June 16, 2009

ExoMars Program Seeks Help From NASA

With a nearly palpable sense of relief, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced on Monday that NASA was enlisted to help in the planning and funding of its unmanned expedition to Mars, a project that has been beset with problems over financing and design almost since its inception.

Dubbed the ExoMars mission, the odyssey to the Red Planet was originally intended to be the showcase of the ESA's "Aurora" space program, whose broad but ambitious stated goal includes the exploration of the solar system.  The initial blueprints for the interplanetary adventure were first drafted in 2005 and included sending a miniature robotic rover to mars in a remote-controlled vessel at a projected maximum cost of $890 million.

As is often the case however, once the project got rolling, the ambitions of its designers began enlarging "” as did the estimated costs.  A little over a year into the planning and development phase, project leaders were already predicting that the receipt to ESA's member states would be nearly double that of the original estimates.  Faced with the prospect of unexpected, astronomically high costs, delegates from the participating nations declined additional funding for the project. 

Originally set to embark on its mission in 2011, the ExoMars' launch has since been pushed back twice "” first to 2013 and then again last year to 2016.

A much relieved Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of the ESA, told reporters after the Paris Air Show last week he believed that the European and American space agencies were close to reaching an agreement on the Mars project.

"We should have an exchange of letters of intent by the end of the month," said Dordain. "Through this agreement with NASA, which is a long-term cooperation agreement on robotic exploration of Mars, NASA will contribute significantly to the ExoMars mission," he added.

Dordain made it a point to note that it was important to both him and a number of his European colleagues that the most crucial technological aspects of the mission "” including landing, cruising on the surface of the planet and drilling "” remain under the control of the European side of the partnership.

"The lander, the rover and the device to drill the surface of Mars will be provided by ESA, while NASA will provide the launcher and the carrier orbiter," he explained.

Established in 1975 as an intergovernmental organization dedicated to the exploration of space, the ESA currently consists of 18 member states with an annual budget of almost $5 billion in 2009.  Though its central headquarters are located in Paris, the agency's main spaceport is the Guiana Space Centre at Kourou, French Guiana.

Since the 1990's the ESA has been the market leader in commercial space launches and has managed to established itself as a major player in a field that was traditionally dominated and defined throughout most of the latter half of the 20th century by the competition between U.S. and Soviet space programs.


Image Caption: Artist's impression of the ExoMars rover drilling into the Martian surface. Credits: ESA - AOES Medialab


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