July 26, 2009

Possible Delay For Europe’s Mission To Mars

Europe's robotic rover mission to Mars appears to be set for a 2-year delay, according to a BBC News report. 

The mission, which will search for signs of past or present life, now looks set to launch in 2018.  

It is the third such delay for the mission, which was originally planned to launch in 2011.

The European Space Agency (ESA) will now join forces with NASA, as the two space agencies believe they can achieve far more by collaborating. 

The decision to work together was reached during bilateral discussions in Britain last month, when the two space agencies decided they could accomplish far more by combining their respective budgets and expertise.

Since then, scientists and engineers within both agencies have been developing the basic architecture for a series of missions in 2016, 2018 and 2020 (launch opportunities to Mars arise about every two years).

The current proposal calls for Europe's ExoMars to be launched by a U.S. Atlas rocket, with the U.S. also overseeing the rover's entry, descent and landing (EDL).

The ExoMars mission will be targeted at key methane hotspots on Mars, and will search of signs of past or present life on the Red Planet. 

Although the changes in the mission's parameters will disappoint some, officials say they will enable expanded exploration of Mars.

The program's plan, or baseline, including its implications for ExoMars, are now beginning to emerge, and would call for the space agencies to launch a European orbiter to Mars in 2016, the BBC said.

Its primary objective would be to track down the sources of methane recently detected on the Red planet.

The ExoMars hardware will have the capacity to drill some 6 feet into the surface of the planet.

The presence of methane is of interest because its likely origin is either present-day life or geological activity, either one of which would be an important discovery.

In addition to launching the ExoMars, the Atlas rockets also have capacity to carry sufficient mass to put a static lander on the surface, with the European orbiter relaying its data back to scientists on Earth.

The 2018 launch opportunity would again consist of a U.S. Atlas rocket launching of ExoMars.  However, this mission window is actually one of the most favorable in terms of planetary alignment for many years, making it possible to launch an extremely heavy surface mission.

The current proposal calls for ExoMars to be joined by a slightly smaller rover in the class of the U.S. Spirit and Opportunity vehicles currently on the surface.  ExoMars, along with and its smaller cousin, could then investigate the Methane sources identified by the 2016 orbiter.

The 2020 launch opportunity would likely involve a network of instrumented static landers, according to the plan.

But NASA and the ESA will likely have tight budgets going forward, which could constrain their goals.

During a major triennial meeting last year, authorities in Europe promised sufficient funds to take the budget for ExoMars to $1.2 billion (850m euros).   ESA officials believe the plans they are developing in conjunction with NASA can match the cost requirements and the technological objectives of both sides.

Europe's top goals are to land, rove and drill on Mars.   However, under the proposed plan these objectives could not all be achieved during the ExoMars mission.

In 2018, the entry, descent and landing (EDL) of Europe's rover will likely be managed by NASA using the agency's "skycrane" system designed for their large 2013 rover named Curiosity. But EDL remains an option for Europe for the 2016 surface package of instruments.

Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA's director-general, said he would report to EU member states this fall with firm proposals for a rescoped Mars exploration program, according to the BBC report.

Intensive negotiations will take place over two months among the member states, and among European industry that will be build the spacecraft systems. Should the member states substantially alter their financial contributions, ESA may re-examine the balance of industrial work allocated to different nations through the process of "juste retour", which ensures the work that returns to a member state is proportionate to the financial contribution it makes to a program.

One senior European space executive recently called for the entire ExoMars industrial program to be re-opened to competition.

Approved in 2008 for a 2011 launch, the ExoMars rover was initially conceived as a small mission to demonstrate the technology. However expanded goals and the resulting system design requirements resulted in a delay in the proposed launch.   The first delay pushed back the launch to 2013, but last year it was delayed further to 2016 amid concerns over the budget.

On the Net: