PARIS — Senior officials from the U.S., European and Russian space agencies on Dec. 7 agreed to pursue negotiations that would make Russia a full partner in a planned U.S.-European Mars exploration project that has been stymied by budget restrictions at NASA, a European Space Agency (ESA) official said Dec. 8.

The official said the meeting ended with optimism that Russia would be able to provide a Proton rocket to launch a European-led Mars telecommunications orbiter and a suite of mainly European and Russian sensors in 2016 in exchange for full membership in the project, which ESA calls ExoMars.

ESA spokesman Franco Bonacina said NASA Associate Administrator Charles J. Gay and Anatoly Shilov, deputy head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, were hosted by ESA Science Director Alvaro Gimenez Canete at ESA headquarters here.

They agreed to create two working groups that were asked to report their conclusions to the heads of the three agencies by early February, Bonacina said.

One working group will determine the feasibility of Russia’s providing a heavy-lift Proton rocket for the 2016 ExoMars mission, an orbiter that would carry a telecommunications relay for data transmitted from the martian surface. NASA originally had said it would furnish an Atlas 5 rocket before informing ESA earlier this year that its budget prospects made that scenario unlikely.

ESA and NASA since then have been working on a project that would integrate a telecommunications relay payload into the spacecraft that a NASA-provided Atlas 5 vehicle is to launch in 2018. This launch is to carry a joint NASA-ESA Mars rover.

The prospect of scrapping the 2016 launch has not been well-received at ESA, whose member governments have contributed to ExoMars on the assumption of a two-launch mission. Some payload elements designed for the 2016 mission, especially a European entry, descent and landing module, would not be able to be fitted onto the 2018 launch. That raised the possibility that nations that have been assigned roles in building the now-abandoned ExoMars elements would pull out, threatening the entire effort.

Having Russia ride to the rescue with a Proton vehicle for the 2016 mission carries its own set of problems for ESA. The agency has budgeted 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion) for its entire ExoMars project, but has been unable to secure more than 850 million euros from its member governments. The financial condition of these governments has not improved in recent months, but ESA officials have said they could structure the ExoMars program so that the missing 150 million euros is not needed until late in the program, for rover operations and other post-2018 expenses.

Bonacina said that following the Dec. 7 meeting, the three agencies are operating under the assumption that Roscosmos, which in November lost its own Phobos-Grunt spacecraft that was intended to bring back samples from the martian moon Phobos, is able to provide a Proton vehicle for the 2016 launch.

But in return, Russia will want full co-ownership of the ExoMars mission, including access to data from the NASA-ESA rover mission in 2018. Russia also is expected to supply payload hardware for the 2016 telecommunications orbiter.

How much instrumentation could be accommodated aboard the Proton, and who will have access to what data, are the central issues to be discussed by the second working group, Bonacina said.

An industrial team led by Thales Alenia Space Italy has continued design work on the telecommunications orbiter under an ESA contract despite the 2016 mission’s uncertainties, but this contract slice is scheduled to end around February.

At NASA, meanwhile, no commitment even to the 2018 mission has been made as the agency awaits word on its near-term budget. The current assumption is that NASA will provide an Atlas 5 launch for the 2018 mission. Eliminating the Atlas 5 from the 2016 mission has helped ease the pressure on NASA’s ExoMars contribution, but the agency has hesitated to commit even to the 2018 launch without clearer guidance on its budget, NASA’s director of planetary science, James Green, told a U.S. congressional committee Nov. 15.

NASA issued the following statement Dec. 8: “Further technical discussions will continue over the coming months to confirm the interest of all three partners. Any NASA decisions on this matter will be based on the outcome of these technical discussions and following the release of the President’s [fiscal year] 2013 budget, in February 2012.”



ESA Formally Invites Roscosmos To Join ExoMars Mission as Full-fledged Partner

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