PARIS — The ruling council of the European Space Agency (ESA) on May 16 agreed to keep the long-struggling ExoMars project on life support until June 14, when its supporting nations will be asked to decide to pursue it, an ESA official said.

ExoMars, in which Russia replaced NASA as ESA’s main partner, is being designed to send a telecommunications orbiter, two landers and a rover to Mars following launches in 2016 and 2018.

The project is now estimated to cost ESA around 1.2 billion euros ($1.56 billion). ESA governments approved a different-looking ExoMars in 2008 and since then have been unable to commit more than 850 million euros to it — one of the reasons why ESA welcomed a joint mission with NASA.

NASA’s own budget problems subsequently forced it out of the project. The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, arrived with an offer to provide Proton launches for both ExoMars packages, in 2016 and 2018, in addition to contributing a nuclear heater to a European lander and other items.

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain is solidly behind the project and has widened the search for funds to an extent that veteran ESA observers say is exceptional.

Dordain presented a map toward the 1.2-billion-euro goal at the May 16 meeting. The ESA official said the agency has not said it has the money in hand, only that there are several avenues that are worth exploring between now and the June 13-14 meeting when the agency will ask its governments for a go/no-go decision. Among the possible funding sources now being vetted:

  • Having Russia provide a Proton rocket to replace the European Ariane 5 vehicle now slated to launch Europe’s Juice science mission to Jupiter in 2022.
  • Finding savings in Juice through a cooperation with Russia that would include a Russian lander for Jupiter’s Ganymede moon.
  • Delaying, by two years, the start of construction on ESA’s new headquarters building.
  • Directing contributions from new ESA members to ExoMars rather than ESA’s general budget.
  • Soliciting funds from Europe’s space science decision-making body, the Science Program Committee, by getting an ExoMars contribution classed as a science “Mission of Opportunity.”
  • Finding ExoMars support from ESA’s technology-development departments.
  • Squeezing additional ExoMars funds from the project’s existing sponsors, starting with Italy.

“It’s all bits and pieces, but when you add it up, this is not Mission Impossible,” the ESA official said.



ExoMars Missions Back on the Brink

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