Abandoned by NASA, the European Space Agency has begun working with the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, to launch the two-part ExoMars mission to the Red Planet. Talks between the two agencies began after the agreement that ESA had with NASA fell apart in February of this year. ESA signed a letter of intent with Roscosmos on Apr. 6, 2012. This initial arrangement details the separation of responsibilities between the two organizations.
In essence, what ESA has done is to switch partners from the U.S. to Russia. In fact the layout of the new agreement bears a striking resemblance to the arrangement that NASA had with ESA.
One of the key things that NASA would have brought to the ExoMars mission was the use of two Atlas V rockets.
With the Obama White House’s release of the 2013 Fiscal Year Budget Request in February of 2012, it became apparent that NASA would no longer be able to support the mission and the U.S. space agency pulled out of the arrangement. Under the budget request submitted by the president, some 20 percent of NASA’s planetary missions’ budget will be cut.
Under ESA’s current plan with Russia, there will be two launches; the first will take place in 2016 and the second in 2018. The 2016 launch will see the Trace Gas Orbiter and an Entry, Descent, and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), both made in Europe, sent to Mars.
The instruments on the Trace Gas Orbiter will be used to sniff out gases that are present in the Martian atmosphere in very low concentrations (the primary gas that makes up the Martian atmosphere is carbon dioxide). The Trace Gas Orbiter’s instruments will be used to search for evidence of either biological or geological activity.
As for the second half of ExoMars, that will be launched in 2018 and will consist of a station and a rover. Both of these will carry both Russian and European scientific instruments. The station and rover will operate in parallel and will transmit any data found back to the orbiting Trace Gas Orbiter.
Roscosmos and ESA will collaborate to develop the launch platform and Roscosmos will provide two Proton launch vehicles—one for each flight.
The new Russian partnership is the latest turn in what has been the extremely winding road that the ExoMars mission has taken. Here are some of the changes that have taken place so far:
- In 2005 the ExoMars mission was to consist of a lander and rover and would have launched atop a Soyuz Fregat launch vehicle in 2011.
- In July 2009 NASA signed the Mars Joint Exploration Initiative (MJEI) with ESA. Under this agreement an Atlas V rocket would be used in lieu of the Soyuz Fregat. This altered the specifics of the ExoMars design dramatically.
- In August 2009 ESA announced another agreement with Roscosmos, including not only ExoMars but the doomed Phobos-Grunt mission as well. This agreement foreshadowed future agreements with the Russian Space Agency in that Russia agreed to contribute a Proton rocket as well as parts for the ExoMars rover.
- In December 2009 the ExoMars ball bounced back to NASA. A “final” commitment was given by ESA to provide $1.23 billion for the mission.
- In April 2011 more design changes were suggested in an effort to reduce cost. This would have been another mix of U.S. and European components.
- In February 2012 NASA announced that it was backing out of its agreement with ESA. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden met with ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain in Cape Town, South Africa during the International Astronautical Congress and discussed this latest turn of events. After NASA’s announcement, ESA once again turned to Russia.
Despite all of these changes, certain things have remained the same. Occasionally the concept of sizing the mission both up and down has been bandied back and forth, but the two-mission model has reappeared again and again. Similarly, whether it was the U.S. or Russia, the theme of both partner groups contributing components to the mission has reappeared.
Whether or not this current arrangement will stand the test of time remains to be seen. However, given the fact that the U.S. is facing both crushing debt, as well as a looming financial crisis in the form of the so-called “fiscal cliff”, it is unlikely that the ExoMars “ball” will bounce back to NASA. Given the turbulent history of the mission, however, anything is possible.