June 30, 2009

Shared Goals, High Costs Nudge NASA, ESA Closer

Amidst growing costs and the increasing complexity of missions, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are making concrete overtures of cooperation at a space summit in the UK.

According to Ed Weiler, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, shared scientific goals and exorbitant expenses are helping to form an alliance that might have seemed unlikely 10 years ago. 

The U.S. space agency will likely be intricately involved in the ESA's ExoMars mission, which has been rescheduled several times and is now planned for a tentative launch some time in 2016.

"For many decades now, we've been running our own science programs, especially on Mars and other planets. These missions are getting so, so expensive"”approaching billions of euros or dollars," explained Dr. Weiler to BBC reporters.

While the two space agencies have often been engaged in heated but friendly competition in the realm of space exploration, they share a number of similar scientific goals from which a consolidation of efforts could profit both parties"”particularly regarding missions to the Red Planet.

"[M]aybe we ought to consider working together jointly on all our future Mars missions, so that we can do more than either one of us can do by ourselves," said Weiler, expressing a sentiment that is becoming increasingly common amongst scientists from both agencies.

And that is, in fact, one of the main aims of this week's summit, he explained: "to see if ESA and NASA can get together and come up"”not with two Mars programs"”but with a 'western hemisphere Mars program'."

While NASA already has its $2 billion Mars Science Laboratory project of its own slated for a 2011 launch, jointly-operated expeditions in 2018 and 2020 remain definite possibilities.

A delegation of ten NASA officials will be meeting in Plymouth, UK with a delegation of ESA chiefs to discuss just such possibilities.

NASA's associate administrator for science is leading a delegation of about 10 top US space agency officials, including its planetary science director Jim Green.

They will be joined at the table by a European team headed by David Southwood, Dr Weiler's counterpart in ESA.

While the conference agenda includes a number of diverse areas of potential cooperation, Professor David Southwood of the European team referred to the exploration of Mars as the "most sensitive" topic on the table.

Both agencies are working towards a mission known as the Mars Sample Return aimed at collecting geological samples.

"Everything is directed around that goal ["¦] on the other hand, the architecture of it"”how we do it"”that's where we Europeans have to learn to work with the Americans, share ideas and start setting our priorities," explained Southwood.

The ExoMars mission has been plagued with technical and financial difficulties almost since its inception and has been forced to restructure a number of its goals while also pushing back its launch date three times.

In an effort to save the ESA both time and money, they have been negotiating a deal with their American counterpart in which NASA would provide the launching rockets as well the carrier spacecraft used to deliver the rover to the Mars' surface one the shuttle arrives.

Under the agreement, however, ESA would not get something for nothing.  In return for assistance on the ExoMars mission, NASA would expect compensatory European funds to flow into future, U.S.-led space projects.

While both sides continue to harbor serious reservations about a transatlantic symbiosis of their programs, both are equally keen on the prospect of saving money.

"I can't do the kind of aggressive program NASA would like to have done. I'm not sure David (Southwood) can do the program his scientists would like him to do. But, together, we have a darn good program," Dr Weiler told BBC News.

A European-American space summit is hosted every year, with the location alternating between U.S. and European cities.

This year's agenda also includes discussions of a recently arranged joint NASA-ESA exploratory mission to Jupiter.

"To see NASA and ESA coming to Plymouth to make decisions is fantastic. I think it inspires the city and it inspires young people," said the University of Plymouth's chief executive Professor Wendy Purcell.


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