The 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA) has given Thales Alenia Space an additional contract tranche valued at 98 million euros ($130 million) for work on U.S.-European Mars exploration missions planned for 2016 and 2018, Thales Alenia Space announced Aug. 9.

Under the contract, Thales Alenia Space will continue work on Europe’s ExoMars portion of the missions through March 2011, after which another ESA contract is expected to carry the work to the construction phase.

The contract announced Aug. 9 permits France- and Italy-based Thales Alenia Space and its contracting team to complete the preliminary design review of ExoMars in late 2010, and to order certain components for the missions.

“In addition to ensuring program continuity and making sure we stay on schedule, this contract extension will support continued work by the program’s subcontractors and help us minimize the development risks of such a new and complex mission,” Vincenzo Giorgio, director of science programs at Thales Alenia Space, said in an Aug. 9 statement.

ESA and NASA are collaborating on a broad Mars exploration program that includes a communications relay to be launched in 2016, followed by a European-built rover mission to be launched in 2018.