This week, however, there is news. The European Space Agency is holding its once every four year ministerial meeting to decide on budgets and policy for the next four years. Much of the discussion will revolve around future launchers and manned spaceflight plans. Two decisions have been made, however, that will impact future planetary exploration.
As I wrote last July, Germany has been promoting a mission that would put a lander near the south pole of the moon. Unfortunately, Germany was unable to obtain commitments for the program from other ESA nations and has dropped the project. (See this SpaceNews article for more details.)
ESA's ExoMars mission (with Italy as a major backer) has fared better. ESA formally approved the cooperative program with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos. In return for participating in both the 2016 orbiter mission and the 2018 lander and rover mission, Russia will provide launchers for both missions and the descent and landing system for the 2018 mission. These contributions put the mission's costs for ESA -- expected to be 1.2B Euros not including the costs of instruments borne by individual nations -- within reach of its budget. ESA's managers still haven't found all the funds needed to close the gap between the 850M Euros already committed and the total bill. Various plans are being pursued to close the gap, and the final closure on whether or not the missions will be possible will not come until next year. (This SpaceNews article has more details on the funding issues.)
Russian contributions to the ExoMars orbiter and rover would significantly enhance both missions. As an example, a Russian epithermal neutron detector (right) would have ten times higher resolution than a similar instrument on NASA's Odyssey orbiter (left), allowing for higher resolution maps of near surface ice.
In the meantime, more information has become available on Russia's plans for a stationary geophysical station that will be built into the lander that will deliver to rover to the surface. (In a previous post, I described the instruments Russia will provide for the orbiter and rover.)
Proposed configuration for the 2018 ExoMars lander and rover. Once the rover leaves the lander, the station's instruments would conduct long term monitoring.
In Europe's original plan for ExoMars included a highly capable stationary lander, named Humboldt, to patiently monitor conditions below, surrounding, and above the landing site. Its ten instruments were to include a seismometer, a weather station, a heat flow probe, and dust monitors. (See this post for a chart listing the proposed instruments.) The Humboldt package was eliminated as part of early budget cuts to reduce mission costs.
Plans for the Russian stationary lander could fulfill the original goals of the Humboldt station. The new plans would expand on the Humboldt goals with instruments to monitor atmospheric chemistry, presumably to look for changes in transient trace gases such as methane that would indicate geological or biological activity.
Preliminary instrument list for the stationary lander. Double click on the image for a larger version.
If the ExoMars lander and rover fly in 2018, there would be a good chance that NASA's InSight geophysical station would still be operating. Then we would have two seismometers operating on the surface at the same time, creating a minimalistic seismic network.
Net, this week we lost a possible mission to explore a lunar pole (although Russia has plans there, which will be the subject a post in the near future) and kept alive hopes for ExoMars with new plans for the addition of a capable stationary lander.