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Money Woes Strip Europe's Mars Mission of Instrument

Last November was crunch time for Europe’s ExoMars mission to the red planet when member governments of the European Space Agency (ESA) pinned back the project’s budget to €850 million. Now the axe has fallen: ESA officials at the Paris Airshow this week said that one of the main components of the mission—a static base station called Humboldt that would study Mars’ atmosphere and seismology—will be cut. This scaling back was necessary, said ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain, to keep the mission on schedule for launch in 2016 and on budget, and to avoid jeopardizing the key technology demonstrations of the mission: landing on Mars, roving across the surface, and drilling beneath it—none of which ESA has done before.

ExoMars was enthusiastically approved by ESA governments in 2005 and given a budget of €650 million. But as the mission developed and researchers got more ambitious, the projected cost snowballed to an estimated €1.2 billion. At a budget meeting last November, with Europe’s economy much less buoyant, ESA members ordered the agency to stick within €850 million and to seek international partners to share the cost. Negotiations are indeed underway between ESA and NASA to collaborate on this and future Mars missions. NASA may provide the launcher for ExoMars and the carrier spacecraft that will carry the ExoMars rover on its journey.

Despite this help, Humboldt will have to be sacrificed. This part of the mission was due to carry a seismometer to study Martian geophysics as well as weather and radiation sensors. ESA science chief David Southwood says this technology may be put to better use in a future network of stations spaced around the planet’s surface to study its atmosphere and interior.