No future for Mars exploration?

Source: Drawing by Niyaz Karim

Source: Drawing by Niyaz Karim

A significant reduction in NASA’s funding for interplanetary exploration could force the European Space Agency to turn to Russia for help with it’s ExoMars project.

Unconfirmed news reports have surfaced saying that when NASA submits its budget for the 2013 fiscal year, funding for the joint NASA-European Space Agency project ExoMars will be cut. If these reports do, indeed, turn out to be true, the European Space Agency (ESA) may have to rely on Russia to finally make it to Mars. Even before these latest reports on NASA’s funding woes emerged, the ESA had met with Russian space agency Roskosmos to discuss potential Russian participation in the mission. Initially, the Europeans had hoped to replace the American Atlas V rocket launcher with Russian rockets, but the failure of Russia’s Phobos-Grunt probe has made the situation more complex.

While the ESA might receive the most immediate benefit from any deal with Russia on ExoMars, working with the Europeans would have important benefits for Russia as well. Roskosmos’s own plans for Mars exploration are tentative at the moment, and any deal with ESA would inevitably involve a discussion over Russian participation in the scientific payload.

While NASA’s budget woes are well known and some cuts in programs were expected, the idea that the agency would withdraw from ExoMars was still an unpleasant surprise. ExoMars began as an independent project of the ESA, but as it expanded to involve two launches, the involvement of a partner became necessary. One launch, planned for 2016 would have sent a Trace Gas Orbiter to explore the Martian atmosphere and the second in 2018, a Mars rover.  

As a result, the only new Martian project planned is the MAVEN orbiter, which will study the Martian atmosphere, ionosphere, and their interactions with solar wind. It is schedule to be launched in 2013.

The decision to cut the Mars program was called “irrational” by Ed Weiler, the former head of NASA’s science mission who resigned in September 2011. Weiler considered the Mars program one of NASA’s “crown jewels.”

An official statement is expected Feb. 13 when NASA administrator Charles Bolden holds a briefing for reporters on the 2013 budget. He is expected to announce that the planetary program will be cut by $300 million, with $200 coming from the Mars project. The entire planetary program will then have a total budget of $1.2 billion, down from $1.5 billion, with a possible additional reduction to $1 billion in 2017. Currently, the Mars program has a budget of $580 million.

This is the second time in as many years that NASA has backed out of a joint project with the ESA. Last year the American organization withdrew from the Europa Jupiter Science Mission (EJSM), leaving the ESA to re-evaluate the feasibility and overall scope of the mission, now rechristened JUICE.

Olga Zakutnyaya is a science columnist  for Voice of Russia.

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