With the signing of a formal agreement regarding the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars mission, it appears that the two-part exploratory effort might be gaining steam. Roscosmos and ESA put pen to paper this week and formalized the arrangement which would see two launches be carried out in 2016 and 2018 to deliver the mission’s elements to the Red Planet. ExoMars has had a rocky history, which appears to be smoothing out after NASA backed out its agreement with ESA in February 2012.
Somewhat similar to NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity’s mission, ExoMars is designed to search for clues as to whether or not life ever existed on Mars.
The mission’s components consist of an orbiting spacecraft as well as a rover. According to a press release issued by ESA, the arrangement requires the two organizations to share different responsibilities for the mission. ESA will provide the following: the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), the Entry, Descent, and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), which will be launched during the 2016 flight, and the carrier and rover, which will fly in 2018. Roscosmos’ responsibilities are providing the launch vehicles (Proton rockets) as well as the launch operations. The Russian Space Agency will also handle the descent module and surface module, which will be part of the 2018 half of the mission. Both agencies will provide various other pieces of scientific equipment.
The two segments of the ExoMars mission were described as follows:
Trace Gas Orbiter
The 2016 mission has two major ESA elements: TGO and EDM. TGO will search for evidence of methane and other atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes. It will also serve as a data relay for the 2018 mission. EDM will land on Mars to prove key technologies for the 2018 mission.
In 2018, the ExoMars rover, to be provided by ESA, will search the planet’s surface for signs of life, past and present. It will be the first Mars rover able to drill to depths of 2 meters, collecting samples that have been shielded from the harsh conditions of the surface, where radiation and oxidants can destroy organic materials.
The rover will be delivered by a Russian descent module that includes a surface platform equipped with additional scientific instruments.
“It has been a long way; we have performed a large amount of work together. The ExoMars program is to become the second largest project after Soyuz in Kourou,” said Vladimir Popovkin, head of Roscosmos. “It confirms again that projects of such tremendous scale have to be implemented through international cooperation. The scientific data that we are going to obtain during all the planned missions are important for the worldwide community.”
Up until last year, NASA was to supply crucial elements that the Russian Space Agency has now agreed to provide. However, with President Obama’s FY2013 budget, the space agency was forced to back out of the arrangement. Part of the problem involved cost overruns with the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA will still provide some components, such as the Electra UHF radio package, to the mission. Throughout the lifetime of the mission’s development phase, it has switched partners several times. No fewer than three different launch vehicles have been listed as sending the mission on its way.
“This is a momentous occasion for the ExoMars program that will see industry and scientists from Europe and Russia working together on these two exciting missions, which will develop new technologies that will demonstrate the competitiveness of European industry, be important for preparing a solid participation of ESA in future international exploration missions, and address the key question of whether life ever arose on Mars,” said ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain.