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Rover on Mars.

A half-scale model of ESA's 2020 Mars rover. It will descend using parachutes and thrusters.


Europe moves ahead with Mars mission, kills asteroid lander

Europe’s ExoMars 2020 lander will go ahead as scheduled, despite the failure of the test-run Schiaparelli lander this past October, the European Space Agency (ESA) said today at the end of a council meeting at which government ministers from its 22 member states agreed on budgets for the next several years. ESA won a total of €10.3 billion for a wide range of projects extending into next decade but because the agency had requested €11 billion, some belt tightening will be required. And there was one notable casualty: the Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM), which planned to study in detail and land on a near-Earth asteroid in 2022, did not win enough support from member governments to proceed.

There will be huge relief that ministers supported going ahead with ExoMars 2020 as planned, because it has been on the books at ESA for more than a decade. The mission carries a rover that will be able to, for the first time, drill as deep as 2 meters below the surface in search of present or past life. The first part of the ExoMars program—the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO)—successfully entered Mars orbit in October. It carried with it Schiaparelli, a demonstrator designed to test landing technology. But after a faultless atmospheric entry, a software error caused Schiaparelli to think it was on the surface when it was still kilometers from landing and it subsequently crashed.

Because Schiaparelli was able to transmit data during the landing to the TGO, ESA engineers believe they can avoid a similar mishap in 2020. But it remained to be seen whether ESA members agreed with them. They did; today, ministers approved the €440 million funding needed to complete the ExoMars mission, but with caveats. Some €97 million of the total must come not from the ExoMars budget line, but from ESA’s central funding, which pays for other science missions. That could potentially lead to conflicts down the line.

“Today I am very confident we will do it. We have some contingency,” ESA Director General Jan Wörner told a postcouncil press conference today.

ESA’s central funding won a modest increase of 1% per year before inflation. Wörner pointed out that, with inflation as low as it is today, that does represent some growth in funding, but it doesn’t mean life will be easy. “We are in a little bit of a difficult situation: That increase will be eaten up by ExoMars. We didn’t get a free ticket from the member states,” he said. If inflation increases, then the trouble will mount, because it will eat into the budget for science missions which, with €508 million in 2017, form the biggest budget line in ESA’s central funding.

Despite the strained circumstances, ESA Director of Science Alvaro Giménez Cañete told reporters that: “We can do what we’re committed to and can launch what we’re planning to launch up to 2021.” ESA science missions due for launch in that time span include the Cheops mission to study exoplanet transits, the BepiColombo probe to Mercury, the Solar Orbiter, and the Euclid dark energy mission.

ESA member states also reasserted their commitment to the International Space Station (ISS) by approving nearly €1 billion in funding to remain part of the project beyond the current 2020 agreement to 2024. As part of the current deal, ESA is building a service module for NASA’s Orion capsule. The module will provide electricity, water, oxygen, and nitrogen for astronauts, as well as propulsion once Orion is in orbit. By agreeing to extend ISS operations, ESA commits itself to building a second-service module as part of a barter arrangement with NASA.

Asteroid researchers will be dismayed to hear of the demise of AIM. The mission intended to send a small spacecraft to a 170-meter lump of rock nicknamed Didymoon, because it orbits around a slightly larger asteroid called Didymos. Didymoon is interesting because a NASA mission called Double Asteroid Redirection Test is intending to smash into it at 6 kilometers per second to see what effect that has on its motion. AIM would have observed the condition of the asteroid before and after the collision. Wörner said he will be traveling to Washington, D.C., next week to discuss with NASA what the AIM cancellation means for the joint mission.

Looking further ahead, Wörner said the agency was looking into the possibility of building a “moon village.” This would not be a solely European effort but a multiparty collaboration with contributions from space agencies and industry. The concept doesn’t have a budget line but it has “started already,” says Wörner, adding: “ESA needs visionary programs for the future.”