Friday, March 16, 2012
ExoMars and NASA Budget Updates
The European Space Agency's new joint ExoMars with Russia has been approved to proceed by the agency's ruling council. The new program includes a 2016 orbiter and at least one lander and the 2018 ExoMars rover. Russia will provide launch vehicles for both missions and instruments. Russia will also provide a nuclear power source for the demonstration lander, allowing it to operate for at least months on the Martian surface. The 2016 orbiter will still include instruments to study trace gases in the atmosphere including methane.
The new plan follows NASA's withdrawal from the program, resulting in the loss of NASA's landing expertise. As a result, ESA will fly a demonstration lander to develop and prove its own landing technology in 2016. Presumably this lander will provide the basis for the 2018 rover landing system.
Total cost of the two missions for ESA is expected to grow from 1B euros to 1.2B euros, of which only 850M euros have been committed by ESA's member states. The ruling council has stated that ExoMars is a top priority. Different press accounts suggest that the additional funds may be sought from the member states (which are already being requested for additonal funding for other programs) or from elsewhere in the science budget. The Space News account suggest that ESA may forgo its proposed next large (~1B euro) science mission since NASA has declined to participate and help fund all three missions in competition. (One of those proposals would be for a Ganymede orbiter/Europa-Callisto flyby mission.)
Editorial Thoughts: Today's press accounts leave many details unclear. Previous accounts, for example, have talked about the Russians providing additional landers beyond ESA's demonstration lander. There are also no specifics on which instruments will be carried by the 2016 orbiter or the demonstration lander. (Maybe, finally, a capable seismometer will be delivered to the Martian surface now that the demonstration lander will have a long lived power source? In this case, depending on the fate of the proposed Discovery InSight mission, the ExoMars lander might either partially replace or supplement the InSight lander's capabilities.)
I have always felt that the ExoMars missions are important to continuing the exploration of Mars. Methane in the Martian atmosphere is a mystery, both as to whether it is really there (data suggests, probably) and its source locations and orgins (geochemical or biological). The rover will search for organics on the surface at a second location after NASA's Mars Science Laboratory and will analyze samples gathered from up to two meters below the harsh surface.
Europe Joins Russia on Robotic ExoMars (Aviation Week)
Europe still keen on Mars missions (BBC)
ESA Ruling Council OKs ExoMars Funding (Space News)
On the other side of the Atlantic, the proposed cuts to NASA's planetary program are creating more of a ruckus than I remember for any science program since the cancellation of the super collider. Press accounts of the dispute are common, including a substantial piece in the New York Times. Key Congressmen have sharply questioned NASA's management over the proposed cuts and have blocked the administration's proposed cuts to the planetary program for the current budget year. (In the US, approved budgets are the law of the land and cannot be changed by the administration without approval by the appropriate Congressional committees. It is common when a new budget proposal seeks a new direction for the adminstration to ask for and receive permission to reallocated current funding to reflect the expected change. In this case, the Congressional committees refused permission saying that changes of this magnitude should be fully debated in Congress first.)
Press accounts suggest that the key tradeoff in Congressional deliberations will be between funding for commercial manned spaceflight systems and planetary exploration. The adminstration proposed substantial increases for the former and cuts for the latter. Congress' priorities appear to be the reverse, suggesting a heated debate between the two branches of government.
Appropriators Blocking Mars Mission Move (Aviation Week)
Life on Mars? Funds to Find Answer Fade (New York Times)