ESA and Roscosmos sign ExoMars deal following NASA refocus

by Chris Bergin

The European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian federal space agency, Roscosmos, have announced their partnership on the ExoMars programme. The deal will result in two major Mars missions, launched via the Russian Proton-M rockets with Briz-M upper stages in 2016 and 2018.


In the week NASA managers announced their Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) discovered that ancient Mars could have once supported life, the major step towards confirming whether life actually existed on the Red Planet will be the foundation of the ExoMars programme.

Originally, ExoMars was set to be a major partnership between NASA and ESA, prior to the US Agency’s realignment of its forward plan for Mars science missions, mainly due to funding restrictions. As such, ESA have aligned with the Russians, sharing of responsibilities for the different mission elements.

ExoMars OrbiterPer the announcement on Thursday, ESA will provide the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) in 2016, and the carrier and rover in 2018.

Roscosmos will be responsible for the 2018 descent module and surface platform, and will provide the launch vehicle for both missions, namely the workhorse Proton-M launch vehicle, with the Briz-M upper stage.

Both partners will supply scientific instruments, with the ESA side involving major support from its fourteen nation states, with Italy and the United Kingdom providing the largest support.

For the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mission, the European support include the infrared and ultraviolet spectrometer package NOMAD, led by Belgium, and the CaSSIS high-resolution colour stereo camera, led by Switzerland. Italy will lead the DREAMS environmental station on the EDM.

ExoMars RoverThe 2018 Rover will comprise PanCam, a wide-angle and high resolution camera system, led by the United Kingdom.

Other elements include CLUPI, a close-up imager, led by Switzerland; WISDOM, a ground-penetrating radar, led by France; Ma_MISS, a miniaturised infrared spectrometer integrated in the subsurface drill, led by Italy; MicrOmega, a visible and infrared imaging spectrometer, led by France; RLS, a Raman spectrometer, led by Spain, and MOMA, a novel organic molecule detector, led by Germany, with substantial contributions from the United States.

NASA will still have a small involvement with ExoMars, providing “Electra” telecommunication radios to ESA’s 2016 mission and a critical element of the premier astrobiology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover.

The opening mission, launching in January, 2016 involves two major ESA elements: the TGO and the EDM. The TGO will search for evidence of methane and other atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes. It will also serve as a data relay for the 2018 mission. The EDM will land on Mars to prove key technologies for the second mission.

ESA’s ExoMars rover will search the planet’s surface for signs of life, past and present. It will be the first Mars rover able to drill to depths of two meters, collecting samples that have been shielded from the harsh conditions of the surface, where radiation and oxidants can destroy organic materials.

A Russian descent module will provide the tricky role of landing the rover on the surface of Mars.

Signing the deal“This is a momentous occasion for the ExoMars programme that will see industry and scientists from Europe and Russia working together on these two exciting missions,” noted ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain, who met with Roscosmos leader Vladimir Popovkin at ESA Headquarters in Paris.

“(This) will develop new technologies that will demonstrate the competitiveness of European industry and will be important for preparing strong participation by ESA in future international exploration missions and address the key question of whether life ever arose on Mars.”

With a challenging schedule to meet the 2016 and 2018 windows, Mr Popovkin noted the two partners had already performed a large amount of work on the project.

“The ExoMars programme is to become the second large project after Soyuz in Kourou. It confirms again that projects of such tremendous scale have to be implemented through international cooperation,” added the Russian space agency leader. “The scientific data that we are going to obtain during all the planned missions are important for the worldwide community.”

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ExoMars will also demonstrate core technologies under development by European industry such as landing, roving, drilling and sample preparation that are an essential part of paving the way for the next big step in the robotic exploration of Mars: a sample-return mission.

MAVENThe deal adds to an exciting roadmap of robotic missions that have set their sights on the Red Planet, with the next mission just around the corner. The launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter is currently set for a window that opens in November, with an Atlas V rocket tasked with sending the spacecraft into space.

2016 will mark another NASA mission to Mars, via the launch of the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport – or InSight – mission.

With the recent announcement to design and build a new Mars robotic science rover for 2020 launch, a total of seven NASA missions – operating or being planned – are now officially on NASA’s books.

Notional MSR MissionFurther into the future, planning groups have noted notional missions, such as a loose proposal that would result in the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion and a Mars spacecraft making up the key elements of a Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission.

The mission would utilize a secondary payload opportunity as early as SLS-5 in 2024. However, this option remains as only a few pages on a Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) presentation.

From a human mission standpoint, a private space venture, known as Mars Inspiration, recently announced plans to send a human couple on a 501 day flyby mission to Mars. An optimistic schedule – that will require several major advances in long duration space flight capabilities – is aiming to launch in January, 2018.

Boeing's use of SLS with Lander, via L2NASA’s own aspirations of human missions to the surface of Mars remain undefined, despite a huge amount of documented evaluations via their Design Reference Mission (DRM) efforts. The most recent Mars mission outline came via an in house publication from Boeing, separate to the DRM process.

The Agency continues to state its intentions of conducting missions, via the use of the SLS and Orion, for sometime in the mid-2030s.

However, uncertainty surrounding the Agency’s long term budget outlook is classed as the main issue when projecting a realistic roadmap deep into the future.

Images: Via ESA, NASA, and L2’s Mars Section, with information, documentation – including DRM level content – and videos.)

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