ESA Agrees To Fund ExoMars Until Year’s End

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PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA) agreed June 14 to provide another tranche of funding for its ExoMars robotic mission to Mars with Russia, keeping the mission on life support until the end of the year, an ESA official said.

The decision by ESA’s ruling council, which met June 13-14 at the agency’s headquarters in Paris, will inject about 80 million euros ($104 million) into the project, succeeding a three-month tranche of 64 million euros that runs out in late June.

ESA government ministers are scheduled to meet in Italy in late November to decide, once and for all, whether they wish to pursue ExoMars to its conclusion in partnership with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.

ESA estimates that even with Russia’s contribution of two heavy-lift Proton rockets to launch the ExoMars lander and telecommunications orbiter in 2016, and an ESA-provided rover vehicle and Euro-Russian lander in 2018, the European agency will need 1.2 billion euros to finance its share.

Up to now the agency has been able to secure only 850 million euros in financing.

The ESA official said many sources of financing remain to be confirmed for ExoMars. The mission is not yet out of the woods.

Nonetheless, with the new 80 million euros of support, which is expected to be validated in late June by ESA’s check-writing body, the Industrial Policy Committee, the agency will have spent 481 million euros on ExoMars. While project backers do not like to speak in these terms, the more unrecoverable money that is spent on a project, the greater the reluctance to stop it.

ESA and ExoMars prime contractor Thales Alenia Space Italy agree that parceling out funding in slices of several months is not the most efficient way to manage a program. But they say they remain on track to complete the work on the orbiter — which will include a trace-gas sensor — and the lander in time for a launch aboard a Russian Proton vehicle in January or March 2016.