The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) and European Space Agency (Esa) may use an independent launch operator for its joint Mars exploration mission, it was revealed in Cape Town this week, where Nasa’s Charles Bolden met with his European counterpart Jean-Jacques Dordain.
Part of discussions between Bolden and the Esa director-general included talk around possibly using Arianespace to carry out the 2016 launch, using an Arian 5 launcher, or bringing in Russia as a partner for this portion of the operation.
Originally, Nasa would have provided the launch vehicle for the 2016 mission.
Speaking at the International Astronautical Conference (IAC) in Cape Town, Enzo Giorgio, of contracting company Thales/Alenia Space, said that the joint Mars exploration programme had undergone a number of alternations as a result of financial constraints, but added that the intention remained that it would consist of two missions – one in 2016 and the other in 2018.
The aim of the 2016 mission would be to provide the required information for the planning of a successful entry descent and landing of the rover payload of the 2018 mission to Mars, as well as to perform investigation of the trace gases present in the Martian atmosphere and their potential sources, using a Trace Gas Orbiter.
The 2016 mission would also ensure that communication capability would be established for the 2018 mission, as well as other future rovers or equipment that could be placed on the planet’s surface.
The scenario for the 2018 Mars mission had originally included two rovers, one from Esa and a second from Nasa. Giorgio said that this had now been limited to one joint rover, but with the overall objectives of the mission remaining unchanged.
“The European objective, which is science, searching for life and exploring . . . will be there. On the other side, the Nasa objective will be the caching system which is going to collect samples and cache them for a later sample return system,” he said.
Girogio added that a number of aspects of the 2018 mission were still under discussion, such as whether to use nuclear or solar power for driving the rover and its equipment.
“This major tradeoff has significant consequences on the actual vehicle we have to select,” he said.
In addition the decision as to whether to use a single central computer system to run the entire rover’s operation or use a distributed system still had to be made.
Giorgio cautioned that the finalisation of the project was still “going to be subject to the major agreement which is now being discussed between Nasa, Esa and also within Esa between the European agencies”.
This is in the context of a theme, which has been running through the 2011 IAC of the high cost of space programmes, especially in light of the current economic situation in the US and Europe.