PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA) on June 30 withdrew its proposal to begin full-scale work on a 2016 Mars orbiter mission with NASA following receipt of a letter from NASA’s administrator saying the U.S. agency could not commit to a companion 2018 Mars rover mission, a senior ESA official said June 30.

The decision by ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain to remove the ExoMars contract decision from the agenda of ESA’s Industrial Policy Committee, which met June 29-30, illustrates the continued instability of the joint ESA-NASA Mars exploration program that in principle was decided two years ago.

Briefing reporters here, Eric Morel de Westgaver, ESA’s director for procurement, financial operations and legal affairs, said ESA coupled its decision not to approve the full contract for the 2016 telecommunications relay orbiter with an agreement to fund just enough work on it so as to be able to throttle up to full contract work soon enough to make the 2016 launch date.

ESA will begin immediate negotiations with Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, the prime contractor for the ExoMars orbiter, to determine the minimum payments needed right away to keep the orbiter on track for the 2016 launch date, Morel de Westgaver said. “No irreversible paths” were taken at the meeting of the Industrial Policy Committee (IPC), he said.

ESA, he said, has authority under an existing ExoMars contract to direct limited monies for another couple of months. He declined to disclose the maximum budget authorization the agency has at its disposal.

At ESA, both the 2016 telecommunications orbiter — with its trace-gas sensor and an entry, descent and landing demonstration package — and the 2018 rover are considered a single mission called ExoMars, which is budgeted at 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion). In the contracting sense, the 2016 mission cannot be given full go-ahead funding until issues surrounding the 2018 mission are resolved.

Those issues are several. ESA and NASA since this spring have been working on a joint rover mission for 2018 following NASA’s announcement that its budget does not permit it to provide a separate U.S.-built rover to be launched alongside ESA’s rover.

A joint rover is being designed, but an exact determination of which side will provide what elements will not be made until this fall. That has led some of ESA’s ExoMars contributing nations, notably France and Britain, to ask that the 2016 mission be put on hold, or cut back, to preserve the maximum amount of resources for the 2018 rover launch. The U.K. Space Agency in particular had expressed its desire that its ExoMars contribution not be used to place British industry in a junior partner’s position relative to U.S. industry for a rover that, until recently, was supposed to be built in Britain.

ESA officials have said they cannot put 2016 on hold without raising the risk that the mission will not be ready for a 2016 launch. Both Dordain and ESA Science Director Alvaro Gimenez said in separate interviews the week of June 22 that Thales Alenia Space needed to get cracking on the 2016 orbiter immediately, especially given the program delays since April as ESA has digested NASA’s abandonment of a U.S.-built rover for 2018.

Dordain had said that the urgency of moving full-speed ahead on the 2016 mission was such that he would, if necessary, use ESA’s procedures at the IPC meeting to force ExoMars through to contractual authority by a simple majority vote.

But Dordain said he could not take that step if he had not received a letter from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden reaffirming NASA’s commitment to the 2018 by the time the IPC debated ExoMars.

That letter arrived late June 29 Central European Time, Morel de Westgaver said. In it, he said, Bolden says NASA will do its utmost to be able to be able to commit to the 2018 mission by Sept. 15, when it presumably will have more clarity about its budget prospects.

The IPC will meet Sept. 29-30 to take up the issue again, Morel de Westgaver said.



France, Britain Reluctant To Recommit To Revised but ‘Risky’ ExoMars Mission

Despite French Objections, ESA Seeks To Press Ahead on ExoMars

French Concerns Throw ExoMars Plan Into Doubt


Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.