ESA and the Russian federal space agency, Roscosmos, have entered into a project to jointly explore the planet Mars. During a ceremony on Thursday (Mar. 14) at ESA Headquarters in Paris, the two agencies formed a partnership for ESA’s ExoMars program when a formal agreement was signed between ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain and Head of Roscosmos Vladimir Popovkin. This agreement covers shared responsibilities for two missions involving three spacecraft in 2016 and 2018.
Under the agreement, ESA will provide two spacecraft for the 2016 mission – the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) – and for the 2018 mission ESA will provide a carrier spacecraft and rover. Meanwhile, Roscosmos will build the 2018 rover’s descent module and surface platform as well as the launchers for both missions. Both agencies will supply instruments for exploration.
The purpose of the ExoMars (Exobiology on Mars) program is to demonstrate the technology that will be needed for later missions, such as landing, roving, drilling and sample preparation, with an eye toward an eventual sample return flight from the Red Planet at some future date.
The program has been under development for years, and has been altered many times as ESA has gone into and fallen out of partnerships with other space agencies and space-faring nations, most notably the United States.
The main scientific objective of ExoMars is to seek out signs of past or present life on Mars. Additional to this, the ExoMars spacecraft will study the effects of ancient water on the planet, identify hazards for future manned missions, study the interior of Mars, and build up a store of knowledge that will be used for the first sample return mission.
The 2016 mission consists of two spacecraft. The Trace Gas Orbiter, as the name implies, will seek out traces of methane in the Martian atmosphere, which is a sign of possible life, as well as providing a telecommunications link for the EDM lander and future missions.
The EDM is currently scheduled to land at the Meridiani Planum (0.2°N 357.5°E) on Mars to test the technology that will be used for the 2018 rover mission. The plan is for it to land during the dust storm season on Mars, to allow the spacecraft to study the dust-laden air. After landing, it will use its color camera to study the immediate area. It will monitor wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity and barometric pressure as well as the first measurements of the electrical fields on the Martian surface. Unfortunately, it will be a brief surface mission of only four days because the EDM will be powered by a battery without either solar panels or nuclear generators.
Roscosomos’s contribution to the 2016 mission will be two Proton launch vehicles and instruments for the TGO – some of which were originally intended for the failed Phobos-Grunt mission.
The 2018 rover will also be provided by ESA and is designed to drill to depths of two meters (6 ft, 6 in) in search of samples that are far removed from the harsh radiation and chemical environments of the Martian surface. It's hoped that at these depths, there’s a better chance of finding signs of ancient life. Roscosmos will build 80 percent of a sky crane landing module similar to the one that delivered Curiosity to the surface of Mars in 2012. ESA will build the other 20 percent, including guidance and navigation systems.
The cost of the missions is difficult to assess. ESA’s original estimate was for €1 billion (about US$1.3 billion), but with the many changes to the program and the very complicated finances of Roscosmos involving insurance payments for Phobos-Grunt, that figure is only a rough guess at this point.