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NASA open to Russian participation in Mars program

Posted: November 30, 2011

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In a bid to save the next Mars rover from budgetary oblivion, representatives from NASA, Europe and Russia will meet in Paris next week to hash out what each space agency can contribute to a pair of life-hunting Mars missions due to begin launching in four years.

Artist's concept of rover designs for the 2018 mission. NASA and ESA originally planned to send two rovers to a simultaneous landing in 2018, but budget and technical concerns forced officials to descope to a single rover. Credit: ESA
Officials say it is becoming increasingly apparent NASA, Europe and Russia must each make major contributions to the Mars project if the missions are to be left intact. Exploration managers from all three space agencies will meet in Paris next week, according to Jorge Vago, the European Space Agency's chief Mars mission scientist.

"We are kind of in a rush to nail this down," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars program.

NASA and ESA established a joint Mars robotic exploration program in 2009, with an eye toward returning samples from the Red Planet's surface in the 2020s. A series of probes leading up to the sample return mission will be developed in partnership between the agencies.

But neither space agency can afford to launch a methane-sniffing science orbiter in January 2016. The orbiter is being developed by Thales Alenia Space of France, and instruments are being designed in Europe and the United States. ESA also plans an entry, descent and landing demonstrator to ride piggyback on the orbiter.

The Mars Trace Gas Orbiter was supposed to be launched from the United States, but NASA informed ESA earlier this year it could not pay for an Atlas 5 rocket for the probe. NASA's science budget is being restructured to fund the James Webb Space Telescope, which the White House and Congress identified as the agency's top scientific priority, ranking above Mars probes.

The communique from NASA left Europe scrambling to find a way to launch the orbiter, which is crucial to NASA and ESA's plans to launch a rover in 2018 loaded with astrobiology experiments and a sample caching system to store Martian soil for pick-up and return to Earth by a later probe.

The Mars Trace Gas Orbiter carries a telecommunications relay radio to link the rover with Earth.

The orbiter and rover are considered a single program named ExoMars in Europe, but ESA does not have funding to launch either spacecraft, necessitating cooperation with NASA or Russia.

European space officials formally invited Russia to participate in the ExoMars program in October, specifically requesting a Proton rocket to launch the 2016 orbiter. Roscosmos has until January to respond, but Russian officials will meet with NASA and ESA managers in Paris on Dec. 7 for a two-day summit on a potential trilateral Mars exploration initiative.

"ESA has approached the Russians about whether they would be interested in participating and providing the launch in 2016 if we can't do that," said Doug McCuistion, manager of NASA's Mars exploration progam. "We have not sat down with the Russians yet, so we'll see."

NASA's contribution to the rover is capped at $1.5 billion, and ESA has received approval from its member states to spend 850 million euros, or about $1.1 billion, on the orbiter and rover.

"We hope that the Russians would like to play along with us and really help by providing the launch vehicle [for the 2016 orbiter]," Meyer told members of the planetary protection subcommittee at a meeting in Florida.

Artist's concept of the European Space Agency's ExoMars mission, including the 2016 Mars Trace Gas Orbiter, atmospheric entry demonstrator and the 2018 rover. Credit: ESA
The discussions will be the first chance for Russia to negotiate directly with ESA and NASA on the level of their commitment to the joint program.

"There is speculation as to what the Russians might want," Meyer said, suggesting Russia could provide scientific instruments and surface penetrator probes, in addition to a Proton launcher for the 2016 Mars Trace Gas Orbiter.

Russia is evaluating the next step in its Mars program after the $165 million Phobos-Grunt mission was stranded in low Earth orbit on the way to the Red Planet in early November.

"2016 is not very far away," Meyer told a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council's planetary protection subcommittee. "We'll have to structure it when we sit down at the table. All three parties will have to agree."

In the wake of the budget upheaval, U.S. and European managers analyzed alternatives to make the rover mission affordable.

The scenarios included removing science instruments from the 2016 orbiter, which would allow the craft to fit on a less expensive launcher. Designers could also add a relay orbiter to launch in tandem with the rover in 2018, consolidating the entire mission into a single flight.

Both options present challenges, Meyer said.

Deleting the scientific payload from the Mars Trace Gas Orbiter, and converting it into a strictly communications mission, would compromise research into Martian trace gases. The detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars led scientists to propose the 2016 orbiter, which could determine whether the methane comes from biological or geological sources.

ESA would also have to redistribute roles and responsibilities for the orbiter among its member states, placing in question previously-agreed financial agreements.

Launching the data relay orbiter and the rover together in 2018 could make the payload too heavy to launch on the largest version of the Atlas 5 rocket. Engineers say the rover would also need to be solar-powered, reducing the length of its mission on the surface.

"If you don't have the money to buy two launch vehicles, this is what you're left with," Meyer said.

NASA and ESA agree simply pushing the missions back two years, and launching the trace gas orbiter and rover in 2018 and 2020, is not a viable option. It would raise the overall cost of the project, according to Mars program managers.

The space agencies concur the best scenario is sticking with the existing plan and launching the full suite of trace gas sensors on the 2016 orbiter, then dispatching the joint rover two years later.

Assuming Russia signs on to launch the Mars Trace Gas Orbiter in 2016, this scenario "provides the best programmatic, scientific and technical contnet, with minimal risk," according to Meyer's presentation to the NASA Advisory Council.

Without Russian help, NASA and ESA will have to resort to a less desirable scenario, likely compromising the Mars program's scientific goals.

Officials hope to have a final decision on the restructured Mars program, including the specific contributions of each space agency, by March.