ExoMars module
The ExoMars entry, descent and landing demonstrator module is installed at the top of the Trace Gas Orbiter at the Thales Alenia Space facility in Cannes, France. Credit: ESA/Stephane Corvaja, 2015

CANNES, France — Europe’s two-launch ExoMars mission to Mars in 2016 and 2018, which has run a budgetary obstacle course from the start, remains in deadlined-stressed mode with triple-shift work days on the eve of first mission’s shipment to Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome to prepare for a March launch, government and industry officials said Nov. 24.

Contrary to what several European Space Agency governments thought as they reluctantly financed the 1.2 billion-euro ($1.28 billion) ExoMars project — Europe’s principal space exploration mission — the industrial team led by Thales Alenia Space has been able to keep to the schedule and save the 2016 launch date.

A component defect discovered only this summer forced a slip in the schedule and the loss of the January launch window. But a backup date of March 14-25 has been secured on a Russian Proton rocket. Russia is ESA’s partner in ExoMars and is providing two Proton rockets for the launches, plus considerable scientific hardware for the 2018 mission.

Pending several final system validations with ESA that Thales Alenia Space characterized as routine, the 2016 mission’s construction phase ends Dec. 10. Three Antonov cargo jets then will carry the more than 50,000 kilograms of ExoMars gear from Turin, Italy, to Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan between Dec. 18 and Dec. 21.

Walter Cugno, ExoMars program director at Thales Alenia Space, said that if necessary some last-minute work could be conducted at the Baikonur facility, but that he foresaw no technical issues that would delay the cargo flights.

“Some people thought we would never get to this point,” ESA Science and Robotic Exploration Director Alvaro Gimenez said here Nov. 25 during an ExoMars briefing at Thales Alenia Space’s plant. “And this is not the end of the story. We need to look further, toward a Mars sample return. We are already studying a sample return mission from [the Martian moon] Phobos with Russia, and we are talking with NASA about where to go on sample return.”

For now, ESA still needs to complete the financing for ExoMars. The 2018 mission is missing around 175 million euros and maybe more depending on how negotiations with the industrial team conclude.

The ExoMars 2016 entry, descent and landing demonstrator module separates from the Trace Gas Orbiter and heads for Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab artist’s concept
The ExoMars 2016 entry, descent and landing demonstrator module separates from the Trace Gas Orbiter and heads for Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab artist’s concept

While all the small component builders are under contract to prevent schedule delays for the 2018 mission, the principal hardware development contract with Thales Alenia Space, Airbus Defence and Space’s British division and OHB SE of Germany has not been signed.

Gimenez said that if negotiations with industry drag on through the spring, ESA may resort to a series of smaller cost-reimbursement contracts with the principal companies to maintain the schedule.

As was the case with the 2016 package, the 2018 mission, which includes much more Russian participation as well as a European rover vehicle, has little schedule margin. Already some are talking about a 2019 launch that would use a different route to Mars to arrive at about the same time.

That such talk is still occurring is a measure of the drama that has beset ExoMars since it was first proposed by Italy.

ExoMars began as a technology demonstration mission to give Europe its own entry, descent and landing capability. It was gradually expanded to include a sizable science capability, including the rover and associated science package. The budget doubled.

The 2016 mission features a Mars orbiter that will test for trace gases in the atmosphere, plus a lander that will be carried by the orbiter and then ejected to operate for several days on Mars’ surface after having demonstrated the entry and landing capability aided by a supersonic parachute, also made in Europe.

On descent to the Mars surface, the lander will be in communications with NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

While NASA sharply reduced its contribution to ExoMars — a development that brought in Russia’s Roscosmos space agency to save the project — the U.S. agency has not completely left the mission. NASA is providing a UHF package that will enable communications between the lander and the European orbiter and with ESA’s Mars Express orbiter, which has been in Mars orbit since December 2003.

Sergei Valentinovich Saveliev, deputy head of Roscosmos, said his agency had been given the resources to hold up Russia’s end. As a condition of its participation, Roscosmos had said it would not simply provide two Proton rockets to fill in for the departing NASA.

“We proposed that Russia would be a full participant in the development of scientific equipment and that the two partners would have joint access to the scientific data,” Saveliev said, adding that some in Russia had opposed the program.

“This is a very complex and costly project that cannot be done by one country alone,” Saveliev said. “We believe other [joint] projects will follow. This will not be the last one.”

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