NEW YORK — 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 Oct. 13.

The agency is asking for a definitive response from Moscow by late January, at which point ESA will decide whether to maintain its ExoMars program as a two-launch effort with Russia as a new partner alongside NASA, or reduce it to a single launch, with NASA, of a jointly built Mars rover in 2018.

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.

In particular, ESA is hoping Roscosmos will join the U.S.-European program as a full third partner and provide a Proton rocket launch for a European-built Mars telecommunications orbiter and an entry, descent and landing system in 2016.

Until several weeks ago, ExoMars featured a NASA-provided launch of the telecommunications orbiter and other experiments in 2016. NASA has since informed ESA that its budget outlook is too clouded to be able to commit to the 2016 launch and the still-planned 2018 launch, aboard a NASA-provided Atlas 5 rocket, of the Euro-American Mars rover.

With ExoMars already short of the funds needed for ESA’s planned contributions, the agency has little hope of purchasing its own Ariane 5 rocket for the 2016 mission.

Dordain said that, following meetings with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden the week of Oct. 3 at the International Astronautical Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, ESA continues to operate on the assumption that NASA will provide an Atlas 5 launch for the 2018 mission, as well as full participation in the joint rover mission.

But even the 2018 commitment is less than rock solid as NASA grapples with its likely future financing.

“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.”

ESA’s two-launch ExoMars mission scenario is budgeted at about 1 billion euros ($1.35 billion), but the 19-nation agency has been able to secure only 850 million euros up to now. Reducing the mission to a single launch, and abandoning a separate ESA-provided telecommunications orbiter and entry-descent-landing system, might therefore be seen as something of a relief.

That is not the case, for two reasons.

First, the agency has committed to industrial contracts through December for work on the 2016 mission, which was already on a tight schedule. The savings incurred if ExoMars is reduced to a single launch will therefore be minimal, especially given that the 2018 mission hardware would need to be modified to carry a telecommunications capability permitting the rover to communicate.

Second, ExoMars is like most ESA programs in that it is funded by voluntary contributions from agency member governments whose share in a given program is directly tied to the work their national industry will perform.

Any sizable cuts made to the mission will almost certainly reduce work that one or more ExoMars contributing nations had assumed its industry would perform. It is not automatic that these contributors will stay in the program if their industry’s work share is reduced.

Cutting ExoMars from two launches to one would constitute the kind of major program modification that would release participating nations from their financial commitments.

ESA has tentatively concluded that a one-launch ExoMars program, with a telecommunications package embedded into the spacecraft carrying the U.S.-European rover to Mars orbit, could be fitted into the 850 million euros the agency currently has at its disposal for the project after subtracting for what has already been spent. 

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.’”

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 Oct. 13. Dordain briefed ESA’s ruling council on the ExoMars situation Oct. 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.

By the time NASA delivers a clearer sense of its plans in February, ESA will know whether its ExoMars program is a single launch only, and if so what the consequences are for its governments’ financial participation in the project.



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

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