A concept of the European Space Agency's ExoMars Rover. Credit: European Space Agency/AOES Medialab artist's concept

LE BOURGET, France — The U.S.-European Mars exploration program featuring launches in 2016 and 2018 is facing new turbulence following the French government’s refusal to endorse new spending until the 2018 mission is better defined and given a bigger budget, according to European government and industry officials.

The French space agency, CNES, had already signaled to its fellow European Space Agency (ESA) governments in late May that it needed more time to evaluate the impact of NASA’s decision to scrap a NASA rover in 2018 in favor of a joint NASA-ESA vehicle.

Lone among ESA governments taking part in the mission, CNES voted against forwarding ESA’s ExoMars program, which includes a 2016 Mars orbiter in addition to the 2018 launch of the rover, to ESA’s check-writing body, called the Industrial Policy Committee.

CNES’s concerns were apparently insufficient to prevent ESA’s Human Spaceflight and Operations Directorate, meeting May 26-27, from approving the new ExoMars configuration despite the many unknowns about the NASA-ESA rover. Precise information on the rover’s cost and configuration, including the work distribution between ESA and NASA, will not be settled until October.

ESA’s Industrial Policy Committee, which approves the agency’s expenditures, is scheduled to meet June 29-30 to approve a resumption of full ExoMars spending following a suspension of most work in April.

The work suspension was caused by NASA’s decision, announced in March, that it could no longer afford its own rover and would seek a single U.S.-European rover for the 2018 launch.

The Industrial Policy Committee had been expected to reopen the ExoMars financial spigot given the approval of the Human Spaceflight and Operations Directorate. Whether the financial go-ahead can occur without France is unclear.

ESA officials had wanted to approve continued funding of ExoMars as soon as July 1 because of what they said were tight deadlines for the industrial contracting team working on the 2016 mission.

ESA’s ExoMars prime contractor, Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, had said it needed to begin full-scale construction on the 2016 mission, which features a Mars telecommunications relay orbiter, this summer without waiting for the end of negotiations on the 2018 rover.

In a June 21 interview here during the Paris air show, CNES President Yannick d’Escatha said CNES’s priority is the 2018 rover mission.

With the entire ExoMars mission budget capped by ESA governments at 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion), d’Escatha said CNES is worried that the monies allocated to the 2018 mission are insufficient to cover new costs associated with the NASA-ESA rover.

“Our concerns should not be taken as a critique of NASA,” d’Escatha said. “There is no single space agency anywhere that has not confronted unforeseen difficulties that force a change in plans. But this new element adds unknowns. We would like to be sure that, whatever they are, there is sufficient margin in the budget for the 2018 mission that we can deal with them.”

With the mission’s budget firmly capped at 1 billion euros, any new money allocated to the 2018 rover must be taken from the 2016 orbiter. D’Escatha said that is fine with CNES.

“For us, the clear priority is the 2018 mission,” he said. “The 2016 mission is there only to make possible the 2018 mission with the telecom relay. If the 2016 mission has to be de-scoped to better project 2018 given the current unknowns, then that is what we would propose.”

In addition to its telecommunications relay function for 2018, the 2016 mission features a Mars Trace Gas Orbiter satellite to be provided by ESA, would hunt for methane sources in the Mars atmosphere. The mission also includes an ESA-provided entry, descent and landing demonstration package.

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said after the May 26-27 meeting of ESA’s Human Spaceflight and Operations Directorate that the agency had added money to the 2018 mission and protected its budget from any cost overruns on the 2016 mission.

D’Escatha said these measures still leave the 2018 mission open to cost overruns due to the redesigned NASA-ESA rover, about which very little will be known before this fall.

D’Escatha said he is skeptical that a couple of months’ review of the mission will pose a risk to the 2016 launch date. “There are few missions of this type that cannot withstand a couple of months’ delay,” he said. “It just means we will need to work a little faster. As it was not possible to discuss our concerns at [the May 26-27 ESA meeting], because this subject was not on the agenda, we voted against it,” he said, referring to the overall approval of the ExoMars mission.

It was not immediately clear whether the Industrial Policy Committee will be presented with an ExoMars spending proposal at the June 29-30 meeting given France’s position. The committee usually works on the basis of consensus.

In any event ExoMars, for which ESA so far has rounded up only 850 million euros of the budgeted 1 billion euros, cannot move forward without France unless another government agrees to take a correspondingly larger share of the work.



Despite French Objections, ESA Seeks To Press Ahead on ExoMars

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