October 01, 2012
Credit: Credit: NASA
Frank Morring, Jr. Washington and Amy Svitak Liege, Belgium
NASA has decided it can do a Mars sample-return mission on its own, but it will continue to collaborate with the European Space Agency on Mars exploration despite dropping out of Europe's ExoMars program last year.
Even though Europe has shifted to working with Russia on ExoMars, the program's 2016 orbiter could help provide data and command relays between Earth and a 2018 NASA rover on the surface of Mars. However, it remains to be seen if there will be such a rover, and what it could do if NASA finds the funds to build it.
The U.S. space agency has 4-6 months to decide how it will proceed under its reduced Mars-exploration funding plan. That decision will be shaped by a new set of mission options from the agency's Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) instrument landing system, and possibly by congressional signals on fiscal 2013 funding levels for Mars. Also in the mix is the role of potential collaborators outside NASA's Science Mission Directorate, including the European Space Agency (ESA).
“Now what we're trying to do is go out and work with the human exploration folks and the technology development folks and decide how we synergize the four areas of NASA and still enable the U.S.—along with our international partners—to put humans on Mars in the 2030s,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, speaking Sept. 26 during a visit to Liege, Belgium.
ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain says his agency was involved in the MPPG study, and that he expects ESA to play a role in any future effort to send humans to Mars. But first, Europe needs to rebound from NASA's almost total withdrawal last year from its ExoMars campaign, a two-pronged mission that would send robotic spacecraft to the red planet in 2016 and 2018.
Dordain says he plans to meet with Roscosmos Director Vladimir Popovkin at the International Astronautical Congress in Naples, Italy, this week to finalize a revamped ExoMars strategy. ExoMars prime contractor Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy already is making progress on the mission.
“We are cutting the metal for the 2016 mission,” Dordain says. “It's not yet a reality, but close to a reality.”