April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Russia has come to an agreement with the European Space Agency (ESA) member states to take a significant role in planned Red Planet missions in 2016 and 2018. The 2016 mission will look for methane and other trace gases in the atmosphere and another in 2018 that aims to put a rover on the Martian surface.
Russia stepping up fills a void left by the US who pulled back from the projects earlier this year. The American withdrawal looked as though it would cancel the missions, called ExoMars, but the Russian desire to pick up many of the elements the US dropped has put ExoMars on a much surer footing.
The US was forced to withdraw from the ExoMars mission when NASA’s planetary science budget was slashed by 21% in February.
Although the documentation remains to be signed by all parties, the ESA member states indicated their happiness with the cooperation text this past Monday. The signing is likely to happen before the end of the year.
ESA officials say that they want the ExoMars partnership with Russia to be a catalyst for future planetary exploration ventures.
“We have other opportunities to consider cooperation – for Jupiter missions, for example,” Frederic Nordlund, the head of international relations at ESA, told BBC News. “ESA has selected Juice, a large mission for Jupiter, and in Russia there is a plan for a Ganymede lander which is of interest to Europe. We are initiating discussions to see how we could co-operate on those missions. But this could extend to lunar robotics where we would like to see if we could join forces as well.”
“Russia already has its Luna-Glob and Luna-Resurs missions, which are already being implemented, but we’re considering other opportunities for this in other areas.”
According to the new agreement, Russia will provide the Proton rockets to send the two ExoMars missions into space. Instrument space will also be made available for Russia on both missions and Russian researchers would join the science teams that exploit the missions’ data.
Russian industry will build the landing system that places the rover on the planet’s surface, with the exception of a few key components.
The ExoMars mission was initiated in Europe in 2005. ESA has spent in excess of 400 million Euros on technology development so far, and the final budget for the European side is projected to be about 1.2 billion Euros for the two missions.
The final budget has not been met yet, but so far 850 million has been committed and officials are confident of closing the gap.
The 2016 satellite orbiter’s mission will be to track down the source of methane gases that have been observed on Mars. The presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere is intriguing for scientists because it could conceivably indicate biological activity on the planet.
The satellite will also provide communications for the 2018 rover mission in which the six wheeled vehicle will look for signs of past or present life. The rover will have the ability to drill 2 meters into the ground.