NASAs Proposed ‘InSight’ Lander would Peer to the Center of Mars in 2016

Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. Credit: JPL/NASA


A Phoenix-like lander that would mine the deepest hole yet into Mars– to a depth of 5 meters – and unveil the nature of the mysterious deep interior and central core of the Red Planet is under consideration by NASA for a 2016 launch and sports a nifty new name – InSight.

The stationary “InSight” lander would be an international science mission and a near duplicate of NASA’s proven Phoenix spacecraft, Bruce Banerdt told Universe Today. Banerdt is the Principal Investigator of the proposed InSight mission.

“InSight is essentially built from scratch, but nearly build-to-print from the Phoenix design,” Banerdt, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena , Calif, told me. The team can keep costs down by re-using the blueprints pioneered by Phoenix instead of creating an entirely new spacecraft.

“The robotic arm is similar (but not identical) to the Phoenix arm.”

Mars Interior
Insight’s goal is to investigate and deduce the nature of the interior of the Red Planet. Credit: JPL/NASA

However, the landing site and science goals for InSight are quite different from Phoenix.

InSight will have an entirely new suite of three science instruments, including two from Europe, designed to peer to the center of Mars and detect the fingerprints of the processes by which the terrestrial planets formed. It will determine if there is any seismic activity, the amount of heat flow from the interior, the size of Mars core and whether the core is liquid or solid.

NASA’s twin GRAIL lunar gravity probes are set to begin their own investigation into the interior and core of Earth’s Moon in early March 2012, and several science team members are common to GRAIL and InSight.

“The seismometer (SEIS, stands for Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure) is from France (built by CNES and IPGP) and the heat flow probe (HP3, stands for Heat flow and Physical Properties Probe) is from Germany (built by DLR),” Banerdt explained.

Phoenix successfully landed in the frigid northern polar regions of Mars in 2008 in search of potential habitats for life and quickly discovered water ice and salty soils that could be favorable for the genesis and support of extraterrestrial life.

3 Footpads of Phoenix Mars Lander atop Martian Ice
Phoenix thrusters blasted away Martian soil and exposed water ice. Proposed Mars InSight mission will build a new Phoenix-like lander from scratch to peer deep into the Red Planet and investigate the nature and size of the mysterious Martian core. Credit: Kenneth Kremer, Marco Di Lorenzo, Phoenix Mission, NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute

InSight will intentionally land in a far warmer and sunnier location nearer the moderate climate of the equator to enable a projected lifetime of 2 years (or 1 Mars year) vs. the 5 months survival of Phoenix extremely harsh arctic touchdown zone.

“Our planned landing site is in Elysium Planitia,” Banerdt told me. “It was chosen for optimizing engineering safety margins for landing and power.”

The more equatorial landing site affords far more sun for the life giving solar arrays to power the instruments and electronics.

“We have global objectives and can do our science anywhere on the planet.”

Elysium Planitia is not too far from the landing sites of the Spirit and Curiosity rovers. The Elysium Mons volcano is also in the general area, but it’s a long way from precise site selection.

InSight is a geophysical lander targeted to delve deep beneath the surface into the Martian interior, check its “vital signs”; like “pulse” though seismology, “temperature”, though a heat flow probe, and “reflexes”, through precision tracking.

The purpose is to answer one of science’s most fundamental questions: How were the planets created?

InSight will accomplish much of its science investigations through experiments sitting directly in contact with the Martian surface. The robotic arm will pluck two of the instruments from the lander deck and place them onto Mars.

“The arm will pick the SEIS seismometer and HP3 heat flow probe off the deck and place each on the ground next to the lander. The arm doesn’t have a drill, but the heat flow probe itself will burrow down as deep as 5 meters,” Banerdt elaborated.

The third experiment named RISE (Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment) is to be provided by JPL and will use the spacecraft communication system to provide precise measurements of Mars planetary rotation and elucidate clues to its interior structure and composition.

Right now on Mars, NASA’s Opportunity rover is conducting a Doppler radio tracking experiment similar to what is planned for RISE, but InSight will have a big advantage according to Banerdt.

“The RISE experiment will be very similar to what we are doing right now on Opportunity, but will be able to do much better, said Banerdt. “The differences are that we will get more tracking every week (Opportunity is power-limited during the winter months; that’s why she is currently stationary!) and will make measurements for an entire Mars year – we will likely only get a handful of months from Opportunity.”

Insight will also be equipped with 2 cameras and make some weather measurements.

“We have a camera on the arm and one fixed to the deck, both primarily to support placing the instruments on the surface, although they will be able to scan the landscape around the spacecraft. Both are Black & White,” Banerdt told me.

“We will measure pressure, temperature and wind, mostly to support noise analysis on the seismic data, but will also supply information on the weather.”

Mars has the same basic internal structure as the Earth and other terrestrial (rocky) planets. It is large enough to have pressures equivalent to those throughout the Earth's upper mantle, and it has a core with a similar fraction of its mass. In contrast, the pressure even near the center of the Moon barely reach that just below the Earth's crust and it has a tiny, almost negligible core. The size of Mars indicates that it must have undergone many of the same separation and crystallization processes that formed the Earth's crust and core during early planetary formation. Credit: JPL/NASA

InSight is one of three missions vying to be selected for flight in NASA’s Discovery Program, a series of low cost NASA missions to understand the solar system by exploring planets, moons, and small bodies such as comets and asteroids. All three mission teams are required to submit concept study reports to NASA on March 19.

Banerdt’s team is working hard to finalize the concept study report.

“It describes the mission design as we have refined it over the past 9 months since the NASA Step-1 selection.”

So there is no guarantee that InSight will fly. Because of severe budget cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science Division, NASA had to cancel its scheduled participation in two other Mars missions dubbed ExoMars and jointed planned with ESA, the European Space Agency, for launch in 2016 and 2018.

A Penny for your Curiosity on Mars

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity carries a Lincoln Penny on the calibration target to be used by a camera at the end of the robotic arm. The calibration target for the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera is attached to a shoulder joint of the arm. Inset shows the location of the calibration target. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


NASA’s huge Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover is carrying a vintage Lincoln penny along for the long interplanetary journey to Mars – and it’s not to open the first Martian savings account.

Scientists will use the century old Lincoln penny – minted back in 1909 – as a modern age calibration target for one of Curiosity’s five powerful science cameras attached to the end of the hefty, 7 foot (2.1 meter) long robotic arm.

The car sized rover is on course to touchdown at the foothills of a towering and layered mountain inside Gale Crater in just 161 days on Aug. 6, 2012.

So far Curiosity has traveled 244 million kilometers since blasting off on Nov. 26, 2011 from Florida and has another 322 million kilometers to go to the Red Planet.

The copper penny is bundled to a shoulder joint on the rovers arm along with the other elements of the calibration target, including color chips, a metric standardized bar graphic, and a stair-step pattern for depth calibration.

The whole target is about the size of a smart phone and looks a lot like an eye vision chart in an ophthalmologist’s office. And it serves a similar purpose, which will be to check the performance of Curiosity eyes – specifically the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera located at the terminus of the robotic arm.

Curiosity’s Calibration Target
Two instruments at the end of the robotic arm on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity will use calibration targets attached to a shoulder joint of the arm. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

MAHLI will conduct close-up inspections of Martian rocks and soil. It can show tiny details, finer than a human hair.

The term “hand lens” in MAHLI’s name refers to the standard practice by field geologists’ of carrying a hand lens during expeditions for close up, magnified inspection of rocks they find along the way. So it’s also critical to pack various means of calibration so that researchers can interpret their results and put them into proper perspective.

MAHLI can also focus on targets over a wide range of distances near and far, from about a finger’s-width away out to the Red Planets horizon, which in this case means the mountains and rim of the breathtaking Gale Crater landing site.

“When a geologist takes pictures of rock outcrops she is studying, she wants an object of known scale in the photographs,” said MAHLI Principal Investigator Ken Edgett, of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, which supplied the camera to NASA.

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover - inside the Cleanroom at KSC
Curiosity with robotic arm extended. Calibration target is located at a shoulder joint on the arm. Photo taken just before encapsulation for 8 month long interplanetary Martian Journey and touchdown inside Gale Crater. Credit: Ken Kremer

The target features a collection of marked black bars in a wide range of labeled sizes to correlate calibration images to each image taken by Curiosity.

“If it is a whole cliff face, she’ll ask a person to stand in the shot. If it is a view from a meter or so away, she might use a rock hammer. If it is a close-up, as the MAHLI can take, she might pull something small out of her pocket. Like a penny.”

Edgett donated the special Lincoln penny with funds from his own pocket. The 1909 “VDB” cent stems from the very first year that Lincoln pennies were minted and also marks the centennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The VDB initials of the coin’s designer – Victor David Brenner — are on the reverse side. In mint condition the 1909 Lincoln VDB copper penny has a value of about $20.

The Lincoln penny in this photograph is part of a camera calibration target attached to NASA's Mars rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The penny is on the MAHLI calibration target as a tip of the hat to geologists’ informal practice of placing a coin or other object of known scale in their photographs. A more formal practice is to use an object with scale marked in millimeters, centimeters or meters,” Edgett said. “Of course, this penny can’t be moved around and placed in MAHLI images; it stays affixed to the rover.”

“Everyone in the United States can recognize the penny and immediately know how big it is, and can compare that with the rover hardware and Mars materials in the same image,” Edgett said.

“The public can watch for changes in the penny over the long term on Mars. Will it change color? Will it corrode? Will it get pitted by windblown sand?”

MAHLI’s calibration target also features a display of six patches of pigmented silicone to assist in interpreting color and brightness in the images. Five of them are leftovers from Spirit and Opportunity. The sixth has a fluorescent pigment that glows red when exposed to ultraviolet light, allows checking of an ultraviolet light source on MAHLI. The fluorescent material was donated to the MAHLI team by Spectra Systems, Inc., Providence, R.I.

Three-dimensional calibration of the MSL images will be done using the penny and a stair-stepped area at the bottom of the target.

“The importance of calibration is to allow data acquired on Mars to be compared reliably to data acquired on Earth,” said Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

Curiosity is a 1 ton (900 kg) behemoth. She measures 3 meters (10 ft) in length and is nearly twice the size and five times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity, NASA’s prior set of twin Martian robots. The science payload is 15 times heavier than the twin robots.

Curiosity is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments that are seeking the signs of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it.

NASA could only afford to build one rover this time.

Curiosity MSL location on 27 Feb 2012. Credit: NASA

Curiosity will be NASA’s last Mars rover since the 4th generation ExoMars rover due to liftoff in 2018 was just cancelled by the Obama Administration as part of a deep slash to NASA’s Planetary Science budget.

Experts React to Obama Slash to NASA’s Mars and Planetary Science Exploration

Earth’s next Mars rover will NOT be made in USA. President Obama has killed NASA funding for the ExoMars Rover joint project by NASA and ESA planned for 2018 Launch and designed to search for evidence of life. Credit: ESA - Annotation: Ken Kremer


Earth’s next Mars Rover – NOT Made in USA

Just days after President Obama met with brilliant High School students at the 2012 White House Science Fair to celebrate their winning achievements and encourage America’s Youth to study science and take up careers in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) technical fields, the Obama Administration has decided on deep budgets cuts slashing away the very NASA science programs that would inspire those same students to shoot for the Stars and Beyond and answer the question – Are We Alone ?

Last year, the Obama Administration killed Project Constellation, NASA’s Human Spaceflight program to return American astronauts to the Moon. This year, the President has killed NASA’s ExoMars Robotic Spaceflight program aimed at dispatching two ambitious missions to Mars in 2016 and 2018 to search for signs of life.

Both ExoMars probes involved a joint new collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) carefully crafted to share costs in hard times and get the most bang for the buck – outlined in my earlier Universe Today story, here.

Expert Scientists and Policy makers have been voicing their opinions.

President Obama meets America’s brightest Young Rocket Scientists
President Barack Obama hosted the winning science fair students from a range of nationwide competitions at the 2nd White House Science Fair on February 7, 2012. The ExoMars missions were eliminated from the NASA budget announced on Feb. 13, 2012.

All of NASA’s “Flagship” Planetary Science missions have now been cancelled in the 2013 Fiscal Year Budget proposed on Feb. 13, and others missions have also been curtailed due to the severe economy.

“There is no room in the current budget proposal from the President for new Flagship missions anywhere,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science at a NASA budget briefing for the media on Feb. 13.

ESA is now looking to partner with Russia as all American participation in ExoMars is erased due to NASA’ s forced pull out.

On Feb. 13, NASA’s Fiscal 2013 Budget was announced and the Obama Administration carved away nearly half the Mars mission budget. Altogether, funding for NASA’s Mars and Planetary missions in the Fiscal 2013 budget would be sliced by $300 million – from $1.5 Billion this year to $1.2 Billion in 2013. NASA was forced to gut the Mars program to pay for the cost overruns of the James Webb Space Telescope.

Mars rover scientist Prof. Jim Bell of Arizona State University and President of The Planetary Society (TPS) told Universe Today that “no one expects increases”, but cuts of this magnitude are “cause for concern”.

NASA’s robotic missions to Mars and other solar system bodies have been highly successful, resulted in fundamental scientific breakthroughs and are wildly popular with students and the general public.

“With these large proposed cuts to the NASA Mars exploration program, there will be a lot of cause for concern,” said Bell.

“The Mars program has been one of NASA’s crown jewels over the past 15 years, both in terms of science return on investment, and in terms of public excitement and engagement in NASA’s mission. It would also represent an unfortunate retreat from the kind of international collaboration in space exploration that organizations like The Planetary Society so strongly support.”

NASA Budget Cuts in Fiscal Year 2013 will force NASA to kill participation in the joint ESA/NASA collaboration to send two Astrobiology related missions to orbit and land rovers on Mars in 2016 and 2018- designed to search for evidence of Life. Credit: ESA - Annotation: Ken Kremer

Bell and other scientists feel that any cuts should be balanced among NASA programs, not aimed only at one specific area.

“Certainly no one expects increasing budgets in these austere times, and it is not useful or appropriate to get into a battle of “my science is better than your science” among the different NASA Divisions and Programs.” Bell told me.

“However, it would be unfortunate if the burden of funding cuts were to befall one of NASA’s most successful and popular programs in a disproportionate way compared to other programs. As Ben Franklin said, “We should all hang together, or surely we will all hang separately.”

Bell added that science minded organizations should work with Congress to influence the debate over the coming months.

“Of course, this would only be an initial proposal for the FY13 and beyond budget. Over the winter, spring, and summer many professional and public organizations, like TPS, will be working with Congress to advocate a balanced program of solar system exploration that focuses on the most important science goals as identified in the recent NRC Planetary Decadal Survey, as well as the most exciting and publicly compelling missions that are supported by the public–who ultimately are the ones paying for these missions.”

“Let’s hope that we can all find a productive and pragmatic way to continue to explore Mars, the outer solar system, and our Universe beyond,” Bell concluded.

“The impact of the cuts … will be to immediately terminate the Mars deal with the Europeans,” said Scott Hubbard, of Stanford University and a former NASA planetary scientist who revived the agency’s Mars exploration program after failures in 1999, to the Washington Post. “It’s a scientific tragedy and a national embarrassment.”

“I encourage whoever made this decision to ask around; everyone on Earth wants to know if there is life on other worlds,” Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society, said in a statement. “When you cut NASA’s budget in this way, you’re losing sight of why we explore space in the first place.”

“There is no other country or agency that can do what NASA does—fly extraordinary flagship missions in deep space and land spacecraft on Mars.” Bill Nye said. “If this budget is allowed to stand, the United States will walk away from decades of greatness in space science and exploration. But it will lose more than that. The U.S. will lose expertise, capability, and talent. The nation will lose the ability to compete in one of the few areas in which it is still the undisputed number one.”

Ed Weiler is NASA’s recently retired science mission chief (now replaced by Grunsfeld) and negotiated the ExoMars program with ESA. Weiler actually quit NASA specifically in opposition to the Mars Program cuts ordered by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and had these comments for CBS News;

“To me, it’s bizarro world,” Weiler said an interview with CBS News. “Why would you do this? The President of the United States, President Obama, declared Mars to be the ultimate destination for human exploration. Obviously, before you send humans to the vicinity of Mars or even to land on Mars, you want to know as much about the planet as you possibly can. … You need a sample return mission. The president also established a space policy a few years ago which had the concept of encouraging all agencies to have more and more foreign collaboration, to share the costs and get more for the same bucks.”

“Two years ago, because of budget cuts in the Mars program, I had to appeal to Europe to merge our programs. … That process took two long years of very delicate negotiations. We thought we were following the president’s space policy exactly. Congressional reaction was very positive about our activities. You put those factors in place and you have to ask, why single out Mars? I don’t have an answer.”

Space Analysts and Political leaders also weighed in:

“The president’s budget is just a proposal,” said Howard McCurdy, a space-policy specialist at American University in Washington to the Christian Science Monitor.

The cuts “reflect the new reality” in which the economy, budget deficits, and the federal debt have elbowed their way to the top of Washington’s agenda, McCurdy adds.

“You don’t cut spending for critical scientific research endeavors that have immeasurable benefit to the nation and inspire the human spirit of exploration we all have,” said Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.). Texas is home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who represents the district that’s home to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), released this statement following his meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to discuss the agency’s 2013 budget proposal:

“Today I met with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to express my dismay over widespread reports that NASA’s latest budget proposes to dramatically reduce the planetary science program, and with it, ground breaking missions to Mars and outer planetary bodies like Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, and to inform him of my vehement opposition to such a move.”

“America’s unique expertise in designing and flying deep-space missions is a priceless national asset and the Mars program, one of our nation’s scientific crown jewels, has been a spectacular success that has pushed the boundaries of human understanding and technological innovation, while also boosting American prestige worldwide and driving our children to pursue science and engineering degrees in college.

“As I told the Administrator during our meeting, I oppose these ill-considered cuts and I will do everything in my power to restore the Mars budget and to ensure American leadership in space exploration.”

In an interview with the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Schiff said, “What they’re proposing will be absolutely devastating to planetary science and the Mars program. I’m going to be fighting them tooth and nail. Unfortunately if this is the direction the administration is heading, it will definitely hurt JPL – that’s why I’m so committed to reversing this.”

NASA still hopes for some type of scaled back Mars missions in the 2016 to 2020 timeframe which will be outlined in an upcoming article.

In the meantime, the entire future of America’s Search for Life on the Red Planet now hinges on NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover speeding thru interplanetary space and a pinpoint touchdown inside the layered terrain of Gale Crater on August 6, 2012.

Curiosity will be NASA’s third and last generation of US Mars rovers – 4th Generation Axed !

NASA’s Opportunity Rover is now Earth’s only surviving robot on Mars

SOLID Clues for Finding Life on Mars

Microbes have been found flourishing beneath the surface of the Atacama Desert. (Parro et al./CAB/SINC)


Researchers from the Center of Astrobiology (CAB) in Spain and the Catholic University of the North in Chile have found an “oasis” of microorganisms living two meters beneath the arid soil of the Atacama, proving that even on the driest place on Earth, life finds a way.

Chile’s Atacama Desert receives on average less than .01 cm (.004 inches) of rain per year. In some locations rain has not fallen for over 400 years. But even in this harsh environment there is moisture… just enough, at least, for rock salts and other compounds that can absorb any traces of water to support microbial life beneath the surface.

Using a device called SOLID (Signs Of LIfe Detection) developed by CAB, the researchers were able to identify the presence of microorganisms living on thin films of water within the salty subsurface soil.

Even the substrate itself is able to absorb moisture from the air, concentrating it into films only a few microns thick around the salt crystals. This gives the microorganisms everything they need to survive and flourish — two to three meters underground.

SOLID's array of life-detector modules. (CAB)

At that depth, there is no sunlight and no oxygen, but there is life.

And even when researchers dug to a depth of five meters (a little over 16 feet) and took samples back to a lab, they were able to not only locate microorganisms but also revive them with the addition of a little water.

Of course, the implications for finding life — or at least the remains of its past existence — on Mars is evident. Mars has been shown to have saline deposits in many regions, and the salt is what helps water remain liquid, longer.

“The high concentration of salt has a double effect: it absorbs water between the crystals and lowers the freezing point, so that they can have thin films of water (in brine) at temperatures several degrees below zero, up to minus 20 C,” said Victor Parro, researcher from the Center of Astrobiology (INTA-CSIC, Spain) and coordinator of the study. This is within the temperature range of many regions of Mars, and also anything located several meters below the surface would be well protected from UV radiation from the Sun.

“If there are similar microbes on Mars or remains in similar conditions to the ones we have found in Atacama, we could detect them with instruments like SOLID,” Parro said.

The development of a new version of the SOLID instrument is currently underway for ESA’s ExoMars program.

Read more here on the Science Codex article.

What might be found just a few feet under the surface of Mars? (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

ESA Issues Invitation To Russia To Partner ExoMars Mission

Jean-Jacques Dordain. Credit: ESA photo by S. Corvaja


What’s new in the avenue of space exploration? Right now the European Space Agency (ESA) has issued a formal invitation to Russia to join the U.S.-European Mars exploration program in a last-ditch attempt to save the project from being cut in half, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said October 13th.

The appeal to Russia, which came in the form of a letter to the head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, is likely ESA’s only hope of saving the full U.S.-European Mars exploration project, which Europe calls ExoMars, Dordain said in an interview. At this point in time, the agency is hoping for a solid answer by the beginning of 2012. This will allow for planning for a two-launch mission of the ExoMars program and lead to a full partnership between the Russian Space Agency and NASA. What’s more, this partnership could mean additional support for the U.S.-European program and even incorporate a Proton rocket launch carrying a jointly-build Mars telecommunications orbiter and an entry, descent and landing system in 2016.

By cutting NASA’s budget, the U.S. contribution to world-wide space programs looks bleak… even with the planned 2018 launch, aboard a NASA-provided Atlas 5 rocket, of the Euro-American Mars rover. This lack of funds hurts everyone – including ESA – dashing hopes of of purchasing its own Ariane 5 rocket for the 2016 mission. Even though NASA appears to be committed at this point, there’s always the uncertainty of the U.S. economic picture.

“At this point I am becoming a Doubting Thomas in that I believe only what I can see,” Dordain said. “But NASA has said nothing that would lead me to believe the 2018 mission is not going forward. At this point I have only two options: Keep the mission as we would like it by finding an additional partner, or reduce the mission.”

This doesn’t mean that ESA isn’t trying. Even by cutting the budget to a single-launch isn’t totally the answer. By making such drastic changes in the middle of an already planned scenario means changing tactics when design teams are already on a tight schedule. Cutting the budget also means cutting jobs – and that’s a problem in its own right. At this point, ESA is even willing to release nations from their commitments to keep the program, with modifications, intact.

Dordain said his approach to Roscosmos is not simply a request for an in-kind contribution of a Proton rocket for the 2016 launch. He said he would like Russia involved in ExoMars as a full third participant with NASA and ESA, and that the Russian role could include provision of experiments. “This could end up being an even grander mission than it would have with a full Russian participation,” Dordain said. “It’s not simply a matter of asking the Russians, ‘Please provide us a launcher.’”

Dordain briefed ESA’s ruling council on the ExoMars situation October 13 and will give an update at the council’s mid-December meeting. The current ExoMars contract for the 2016 mission, which had already been extended while ESA waited for a NASA commitment that never came, runs through December and can be extended to January, Dordain said.

It will be a waiting game from here. With luck, the Russians will answer by January 2012 and NASA will have a clearer picture of its own financial responsibilities by February 2012. Let’s hope the ExoMars Mission doesn’t have to pay the price.

Original Story Source: Space News Release.

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