ASI: Preserving ExoMars Could Mean Review of Demo Lander

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PARIS — The biggest contributor to Europe’s struggling ExoMars program, which is envisaged as a collaboration with NASA with launches in 2016 and 2018, is willing to scrap a planned entry, descent and landing module planned for the 2016 flight if that will help put the project back on track.

With 33 percent of Europe’s portion of the two-part ExoMars program, Italy may have the most to lose if the 2016 mission, which is mainly a Mars telecommunications orbiter, is redesigned to save money and assure that sufficient funds are set aside for the 2018 launch of a Euro-American rover.

Italian Space Agency President Enrico Saggese said that while Italy and France are the two nations most involved in developing the 600-kilogram entry and descent demonstration module, Italy is prepared to consider canceling that part of the 2016 mission to salvage ExoMars as a showcase example of trans-Atlantic cooperation.

In a July 7 interview, Saggese said Italy has a special motivation to want to see the ExoMars mission survive the issues plaguing it at both NASA and the 19-nation European Space Agency (ESA).

“We are hosting the next meeting of nations attempting to create a framework for international cooperation on space exploration, which is set for Nov. 10 in Lucca,” Saggese said. “If the ExoMars mission is not going forward, there is little reason for these governments to meet other than sit around and talk. People want to decide the issues, and this will be much more difficult if ExoMars is not approved.”

The Lucca meeting is formally called the International Platform on Space Exploration, in which most spacefaring nations are involved.

ESA has budgeted ExoMars at 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion), but has raised just 850 million euros so far. Its top four supporters in terms of financial backing are Italy (33 percent), Britain (20 percent), France (15 percent) and Germany (10 percent).

Britain and Germany have indicated they cannot make additional contributions to retain their current percentage stakes for a billion-euro effort. It is not clear whether France has the budgetary margin or inclination to invest another 22.5 million euros in ExoMars, which is what it would take for France to remain at 15 percent.

Saggese said Italy has agreed to increase its ExoMars contribution by the 49.5 million euros needed to keep its 33 percent stake in a billion-euro program.

“We are ready to make this effort but, for now, our partners have told us they cannot do the same,” Saggese said. “If that is the case, then we need to find savings to bring the mission cost down to 850 million euros.”

ExoMars program managers say one of the easiest program cuts to find the 150 million euros in savings is the entry, descent and landing package.

While this module is supposed to be built mainly by French and Italian industry, Saggese said Italy would not necessarily object if it were removed, especially given its limited service life on the surface of Mars.

“Some of our partners tell us this package is a technology demonstrator that really does not have, scientifically, much value, as it will only survive on the surface for two or three minutes,” Saggese said. “The mission is also designed to be a direct landing, meaning the entry and descent module will be ejected immediately on the orbiter’s arrival in Mars orbit. There won’t be time to select a landing site. It’s a one-shot attempt.”

Saggese said the entry package’s other drawback is that the technology cannot be easily used for visits to asteroids or other planets.

Yannick d’Escatha, president of the French space agency, CNES, has said France would also be willing to sacrifice the entry and descent module in order to reduce the chance that the 2016 mission exceeds its budget and threatens the 2018 mission.

ESA’s most immediate ExoMars problem is NASA’s inability to confirm the U.S. agency’s role in the 2018 rover mission. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a June 29 letter to ESA, said the agency would be better able to assess its budget prospects in mid-September, at which time he promised to send an update.

ESA officials fear that waiting until mid-September before approving the 2016 mission will compromise the 2016 launch date.

ESA has decided against approving a full 2016 Mars orbiter contract until Oct. 1 — after NASA’s update on its 2018 intentions — but has found about 20 million euros in contract extensions to permit the 2016 orbiter industrial team to continue minimal work.

ESA officials have said the extension of so-called “limit of liability” contracts for the 2016 orbiter will provide enough support to keep the mission on track for a 2016 launch, which NASA has said it will provide. Missing the 2016 launch would scuttle much of the 2018 mission’s reason for being because it would not have a telecommunications relay to return rover data to Earth.

An industry official working on the 2016 mission said the team in the coming weeks will stop all ExoMars work that is not necessary to maintain the 2016 date, so that a maximum amount of the 20 million euros will be directed for the most time-critical subsystems, including avionics systems.

“With the limit-of-liability contracts for industry, ESA has gone to the limit of what it can do legally without winning approval of the full ExoMars mission,” the industry official said. “We have funds to work from July 1 to Sept. 30, with the assumption that the work will be followed by contracts to take the program to its full development.”

 

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