PARIS – Italy, Britain and Germany are expressing fresh interest in lunar exploration even as they and their European partners contend with substantial new costs of a Mars lander already in development.
Spurred by NASA’s move toward making the Moon a way station to Mars and elsewhere, these three European governments are studying small lunar missions that they could do on their own or in partnership with other nations.
The Italian Space Agency (ASI) is expected to decide this year on at least one lunar mission to be selected from 16 exploration proposals now being considered. The British National Space Centre is evaluating two small lunar landers, called MoonRaker and MoonLite, that would use low-cost small-satellite technologies developed by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.
, DLR, also is looking at a lunar exploration mission, although DLR officials have said they will need to be persuaded that the scientific value justifies the expense.
About 160 representatives from industry, government agencies and scientific organizations met Jan. 8-9 in
, to begin a year-long process of discussing priorities for space exploration.
A similar meeting scheduled for late this year in
should result in specific proposals to be made to European Space Agency ( ) governments when they gather to set new space priorities in 2008.
On a parallel track, 14 governments including agencies from United States, Russia, India, Japan, Canada, China and Europe are assembling a global exploration strategy that should be completed following meetings in Kyoto, Japan, in March and a conference in Spineto, Italy, set for May.
One possible obstacle for the Europeans will be the likely cost increases in ESA’s ExoMars Mars rover and surface penetrator. This mission was budgeted at 600 million euros ($780 million) and approved by ESA governments in December 2005 for a 2011 launch aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket operating from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport.
ExoMars’ development has fallen behind schedule and its launch has been delayed to 2013. Because of the relative positions of Mars and Earth then, a 2013 launch cannot carry as much scientific payload as a 2011 launch.
To compensate for the less-favorable date and to maximize the value of ExoMars, ESA governments this year will decide whether to switch to a heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket, with a broader suite of instruments on board.
Making that decision would mean increasing the ExoMars mission costs by up to 200 million euros. Italy, which has taken a leadership role in ExoMars and ESA’s exploration program generally, would be expected to pay 40 percent of this increase, with Britain, Germany and France also taking large shares.
Simonetta Di Pippo, chair of the ESA exploration program board and director of exploration at ASI, said a costlier ExoMars mission could reduce or at least delay Europe’s ability to participate in lunar or other Mars exploration “Additional costs of ExoMars would have to be agreed to this year, and this would make it more difficult to find other exploration funds in 2008,” Di Pippo said Jan. 11. “What we are trying to do now is reduce the delta costs of a bigger ExoMars mission as much as possible. We should have clear answers in time for a decision by autumn.”
Daniel Sacotte, director of ESA’s space station and exploration program, said during a Webcast following the
meeting that ESA governments are weighing missions to the Moon and Mars, and possible asteroid exploration as well.
The French space agency, CNES, has made clear that the French scientific community sees little value in lunar exploration and prefers to concentrate its resources on Mars – first ExoMars in 2013, then a possible mission to make deeper searches for life or water, and then a Mars sample return sometime after that.
Piero Messina, director of ESA’s exploration coordination office, said “most European scientists don’t see the Moon as a high scientific objective.” But
said interest in lunar exploration has picked up because of the possible opportunities offered by NASA’s program.
“There is an opportunity to surf on the wave of renewed interest in the Moon caused by the
said Jan. 11. “It will take time before we determine what a possible contribution to the NASA effort might be. We are lagging behind the [exploration debate] in the
and the Edinburgh meeting is part of our attempt to catch up.”
Keith Mason, chief executive of
‘s Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and chairman of the UK Space Board, said in a Jan. 10 statement that the council has created an ad-hoc UK Exploration Strategy Working Group to set British priorities in the context of the European and global exploration effort. The group is scheduled to make its report this summer.