The European Space Agency (ESA) has decided to fully fund the 2020 ExoMars rover, which means that come the turn of the decade, we may have four rovers operating on the Red Planet – the others being NASA’s Curiosity, Opportunity (if it survives that long), and their upcoming 2020 Mars rover.
The decision to fund ExoMars was made at ESA’s Ministerial Council last Friday. Ministers agreed to give the project the additional €436 million ($467 million) it needed to be ready in time for a July 2020 launch date, with a landing on Mars expected in early 2021.
“After the many challenging, difficult and rewarding moments of 2016, this is a great relief and a fine result for European space exploration,” said Don McCoy, ESA’s project manager for ExoMars, reported Nature.
But the decision had been in doubt, owing to the failure of the Schiaparelli lander this October. The lander was supposed to test key technologies on Mars that will be used to land the rover, but it failed and crashed into the surface. Lessons will need to be learned from this mission, and quickly, if the rover is to be a success.
The first part of the ExoMars mission, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander, arrived at Mars in October. ESA
That does not seem to have been an issue, though, with ExoMars receiving the funding it needed. However, the decision has not been welcomed in all quarters, with some noting that in order to fund the mission – which is already delayed and over-budget – other missions will have to be cut back.
In fact, only €340 million ($365 million) is being stumped up by ESA member states. The remaining money will come from other missions within ESA.
“The science program will now have to absorb part of the cost of the 100 million euros being directed to ExoMars,” reported SpaceNews.
ESA Director-General Jann Woerner also failed to get ESA’s budget for science missions significantly increased to account for inflation, leaving it at €508 million ($545 million) per year with an annual 1 percent rise from 2018, putting future missions at risk. Indeed, there had been some hope that an upcoming space-based gravitational wave observatory called LISA could be accelerated from 2034 to 2029, but that now looks unlikely to happen.
ESA also reaffirmed its commitment to the International Space Station (ISS) with about €1 billion to be spent on using the station. But this, coupled with the funding of ExoMars, has caused some casualties.
Most notably is the Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM), which would have been a groundbreaking mission with NASA to attempt to change the trajectory of an asteroid by slamming a spacecraft into it. Such a method has been touted as a way to stop an asteroid colliding with Earth in future. But AIM did not receive the funding it needed, and its future is now in jeopardy.