PARIS — The French space agency, CNES, on Jan. 19 sent mixed signals over whether it still supports a planned European Mars exploration program being planned with the United States and Russia for 2016 and 2018, and expressed strong opinions on future use of the international space station.

CNES President Yannick d’Escatha said both the ExoMars program and the space station budget will be on the table for European ministers when they meet in November to set multiyear space budget and program priorities.

France is arguing that Europe should develop an orbital maneuvering vehicle that could capture “non-cooperative” targets in orbit for assembly or disassembly, and perhaps clear large pieces of debris from Earth orbit, as part of a barter deal with NASA in lieu of paying cash for Europe’s share of the station’s operations.

NASA and other European nations have proposed that Europe provide a propulsion module for NASA’s Orion crew-transport capsule to offset these station operating charges. A CNES official said France opposes that idea.

The 19-nation European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA have invited the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, to join ExoMars in a long-term partnership. Russia’s arrival would prevent the mission’s collapse from a lack of NASA and ESA financing.

ESA has kept its ExoMars industrial team working on a Mars telecommunications orbiter still scheduled for launch in 2016 despite NASA’s mid-2011 warning that it may not be able to finance the orbiter’s launch. The current contract expires in February.

ESA, which has already had problems rounding up the estimated 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) needed for its share of ExoMars — the agency has secured only 850 million euros — has turned to Russia to provide the 2016 launch instead of NASA and contribute experiments.

NASA has said it will not know until its proposed 2013 budget is announced in February how much it can spend on ExoMars, if anything. The negotiations with Russia are also expected to be wrapped up about the same time.

But in a press conference at CNES headquarters here, d’Escatha said ESA government ministers will want to review ExoMars when they meet in November, especially given the many significant changes the program has witnessed since these same governments approved it several years ago.

“Right now, we don’t know what ExoMars is,” d’Escatha said. “We know that it may be a mission that costs more than we have budgeted. We know it is radically different from what it was when we approved it. It is only natural that the ministers should review the program given these elements.”

CNES had proposed in mid-2011 that ExoMars drop its planned entry, descent and landing module, a move that would have reduced the program’s cost by about the same 150 million euros missing from the budget. CNES made this proposal despite the fact that French industry was heavily involved in the descent module. Italy, which is leading ExoMars in terms of financial contributions, rejected this idea.

Under ESA’s rules, when a program is substantially revised, its participating nations have a right to demand that it return to ESA governments for a second vote of approval. These reviews offer participating nations the opportunity to increase, reduce or cancel their contributions outright.

ExoMars backers had hoped to avoid putting ExoMars before ESA ministers again out of concern that its existing support might disappear.

CNES is not the only government that has suggested ExoMars be put before a ministerial jury again. David Williams, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, has said Britain’s contributions to ExoMars were intended to give British industry a large role in the ExoMars rover vehicle planned for the 2018 mission.

But in the 2011 budget negotiations, NASA and ESA agreed to merge their separate rovers into a single vehicle for the 2018 launch. How much work European industry in general, and Britain in particular, will be given in the merged rover remains unclear.

ESA member governments have approved a budget for the space station until 2015 and voted their approval, in principle, to operating the station through 2020.

Until 2017, ESA is paying its share of the station’s common operating costs to NASA not in cash, but in visits to the station of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo carrier, which is launched by Europe’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket.

Two ATVs have been launched, a third is set for launch in March and the two remaining ATVs are scheduled for 2013 and 2014. Once these five ATVs have performed their mission of providing fuel, water and other supplies to the station, and raising the station’s orbit, ESA will have offset its station operating charges until 2017. ATV production is being shut down after the fifth ATV is built.

That leaves three years, or 450 million euros, that will either be paid in cash, or through a new barter arrangement that NASA and ESA are now negotiating.

France is pushing its European partners to agree to use certain ATV-perfected technologies to develop an orbital vehicle that would grapple “non-cooperative” objects — meaning those not designed to be grappled — in orbit for return to Earth or for assembly and disassembly of orbital infrastructure, d’Escatha said.

Richard Bonneville, CNES deputy director for strategy, said that while this vehicle may cost more than the 450 million euros Europe owes to NASA, it would have applications far beyond the space station, including missions such as collecting Mars soil samples that have been left in Mars orbit.

Bonneville said providing a propulsion module for Orion would be a limited-duration effort that offers little room for innovation in Europe and does not provide the kind of visibility that is useful in sustaining public and political support for space endeavors.

Bonneville said that if ESA does not propose what is known as a “Barter Element” that appeals to Europe’s desire for technological challenge and long-term utility, then France has the option of not participating in the extension of the station’s operations beyond 2015.



ExoMars Partnership Inches Forward

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

ASI: Preserving ExoMars Could Mean Review of Demo Lander

ESA Forced To Defer Full-scale Work on 2016 Mars Orbiter

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


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