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ESA’s ExoMars Mission in Jeopardy

NASA has stated that it cannot provide one of the Atlas rockets required to launch the ExoMars mission that it has partnered with ESA on. Image Credit: ESA


The European Space Agency’s “ExoMars” mission is under threat of cancellation. NASA and ESA heads will meet on Monday, Oct. 3 to decide how much more can be cut from the rapidly slimming mission. This meeting comes on the heels of NASA’s latest round of cuts – which means that the U.S. space agency cannot provide ESA with the Atlas V rocket that was slated to launch part of the mission.

ESA still might be able to keep ExoMars going if it can acquire a Proton rocket under the trade system that the agency is working to negotiate with Russia. Barring that? ExoMars will more-than-likely be cancelled. ESA had been hoping to send a diverse science package to the red planet. ExoMars is currently comprised of a communications relay system, descent and landing modules and a rover that is similar in design to the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity which have been operating on Mars for the past seven years.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter was originally set to launch in 2016, now its future is uncertain. Image Credit: ESA

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain are scheduled to meet in Cape Town, South Africa, during the International Astronautical Congress. During this meeting they are set to discuss one of two options that are left for their joint Mars expedition. The first is a single 2018 launch that will include a NASA-ESA rover and communications package. The second will be to try and maintain, despite the issues with the launch vehicle, the planned 2016 launch.

If a rocket can somehow be procured and the current schedule maintained, ExoMars would be a two launch affair with the Atlas V launching one of the mission’s components and another launch vehicle transporting the remainder. If the mission is saved, but scaled back further, only a single launch would take place in 2018. The Proton rocket scenario appears to be a last-ditch effort to salvage the program at this time. The final deciding factor as to whether-or-not ESA can save the program, to some degree, in its current configuration – depends on ESA obtaining a rocket to replace the Atlas V which NASA says it can no longer provide.

NASA had originally stated that it would provide two Atlas V rockets for the mission, the space agency has taken at least one of these off off the table recently. Photo Credit: ULA

ESA has estimated that either way, the mission will cost them the same 850 million euros ($1.36 billion) that it has already garnered from the nations that comprise the European Union. This is largely due to the fact that ESA has already spent the money to procure the materials and services needed for the orbiter component of the mission.
The primary issue that has continued to threaten mission is the poor state of the economy – both in the U.S. and Europe.

ExoMars started out as a rover and a separate ground station, and was originally set to launch in 2011 on a Soyuz Fregat rocket. In 2009 ESA signed into the Mars Joint Exploration Initiative with NASA. This agreement with NASA both pushed back the launch of the mission considerably and started ExoMars down the path to where it currently finds itself.

ExoMars has been changed repeatedly since its inception and now it is facing possible cancellation. Image Credits: ESA

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • HeadAroundU October 1, 2011, 12:49 PM

    Damn NASA. :D Maybe, they could test SLS with it. :D What about private agencies? And what would be a destination? Eberswalde crater?

  • Andrew Reeves October 2, 2011, 2:06 AM

    SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy?

  • Curtis Warren October 2, 2011, 4:23 AM

    Damn NASA my butt. Damn that idiot and his pals in Washington D.C. Every single one of our elected leaders is akin to a toddler with no outside knowledge of the real world. If NASA had decent funding, problems like these wouldn’t happen…

    • Torbjörn Larsson October 2, 2011, 4:32 PM

      I don’t think it is generally reasonable to assume that a democratic leader is an idiot. And I would be careful with suggestions on individuals if I don’t have any facts to back it up. (Because it makes the claimant look like the claim.)

      Here it seems nonfactual, and the article itself provides counterfacts.

      The current US president was the one pressing for an affordable NASA project and budget structure, while increasing the allotment and weight on science.

      This is why 2009 NASA could enter the ExoMars project, AFAIK.

      As for the current problems, if we dismiss the basic economical problems for now (for one not interesting and second complicated) it was pork politicians who saddled NASA with a likely non-affordable Constellation clone.

      Combined with the temptation to do projects “as per NASA usual”, use up all the budget ASAP (and then hope for more) as they have already officially stated (!), instead of accepting the Augustine reports findings (as directed to boot, I think). This is, I think, why JWST was able to be another “Constellation/SLS”, the cost creep was seen as normal.*

      These politicians did it for keeping high pay jobs in their own states, regardless of the usefulness for US space missions. They are likely to be found in all US political camps, so not “pals” exclusively.

      ————-
      * So I would argue against the last claim as well. JWST shows that no matter how large a budget, the NASA structure finds a way to sink it. Unfortunately they seem to have become dependent on pork.

  • Torbjörn Larsson October 2, 2011, 4:14 PM

    Another victim for JWST. (And/or pork, which way you look at it. And some mismanagement of its own, it was also heading for way too much cost at least once.)

    I am divided on this. There is still a healthy effort on Mars, and this always looked to me like a “me too” mission. If I am wrong I am happily corrected here, I am sure.

    The problem would be if for some reason Curiosity would fail. The other mission in the pipe is a russian/Planetary Society Phobos IIRC. Then what?

    Btw, what happened with the earlier awful rover design? This still looks utilitarian, but a lot cuter!

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