Red mess? A 2007 French mission (inset) has financial problems.

Red Planet Blues

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA--A carefully crafted international program to explore Mars is in danger of coming apart at the seams. Italy and France might soon scale back or cancel several collaborative projects with the United States, forcing a major revamping of Red Planet exploration in this decade and beyond. “It is very, very serious,” says Orlando Figueroa, NASA's Mars program director.

The international effort aims to send increasingly sophisticated rovers and orbiters every 2 years to chip away at Mars's geological and atmospheric secrets. The missions are also meant to establish communications systems for more ambitious efforts, such as a sample return.

Italy's space agency, ASI, might back out of its promise to provide an orbiter NASA plans to launch in 2005 with a radar that would look for water in the top few hundred meters of the planet's crust. ASI president Sergio Vetrella warned NASA earlier this year that Italy might be forced to cancel the $20-million-plus instrument. In addition, Italy might decide not to join NASA in building the first Mars telecommunications satellite for a 2007 launch and a synthetic aperture radar as part of a 2009 NASA-ASI science orbiter.

French participation also might be on the ropes. France is leading a primarily European effort to send a science orbiter to Mars in 2007 that would provide a preliminary test of a sample return mission and would place four small craft on the surface to study the planet's interior. The orbiter would include space for a NASA Scout mission, the details of which have yet to be determined. But cost overruns recently prompted the French research minister to order a scaled-back version from CNES, the country's space agency. Options include postponing it by 2 years, reducing the capability of the orbiter, and scrapping the orbital-capture effort, according to Richard Bonneville of CNES. The landers remain the mission's highest priority.

U.S. officials and scientists are concerned, but they are playing down the impact on NASA's efforts--particularly its plans for a sample-return mission, which isn't likely until well into the next decade. “We're trying to structure the sample return so it doesn't necessarily require the French,” says Jack Farmer, an astrobiologist at Arizona State University in Tempe. The loss of the Scout opportunity would not hinder NASA's plans for another dedicated Scout mission, Figueroa adds.

With reporting by Alexander Hellemans in Naples, Italy, Judy Redfearn in Bristol, U.K., and Daniel Clery in Cambridge, U.K.