Life-searching Mars rover struggles with money, politics

The Russian-European flagship ExoMars mission will likely miss its 2018 launch window to the Red Planet, sources familiar with the program said in 2014. A combination of technical and financial problems will force developers to wait until 2020, when Mars and Earth re-align for a possible traverse between the two planets. Alternatively, the escalating cost of the ExoMars project could kill the program officials warned.

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Postponing the launch of ExoMars from May 7, 2018 (left), to August 5, 2020, will push its arrival to the Red Planet from Jan. 15, 2019, to April 19, 2021.


The ExoMars lander in the touchdown configuration (left) and in the deployed position as envisioned in 2013.

ExoMars reached crisis point in 2014

During 2014, the development of the dual-launch ExoMars project presented a mixed picture. While work on the unmanned Mars orbiter and a small test lander remained largely on track for their scheduled launch in 2016, the main ExoMars rover then set to fly in 2018 was facing an uphill battle on several fronts.

First of all, technical problems were piling up, leading to a six-month delay in the project's critical development milestone known as the System Preliminary Design Review or S-PDR. By the time of the PDR meeting, all components of the ExoMars design have to be finalized on paper and ready for manufacturing.

As of this month, the PDR meeting is scheduled for October, after having been postponed from the first and second quarter of 2014. However by the middle of this year, the major participants in the multi-national project no longer believed that the S-PDR would be able to confirm the 2018 launch date and considered a delay to 2020 as inevitable.

At the official level, the leadership at the European Space Agency, ESA, will have to review the status of all systems based on the results of the S-PDR meeting and decide whether there will be a chance to make it for the 2018 launch window or if it will be necessary to postpone the launch until 2020.

The main reason for the delay would be the ExoMars' brand-new landing system, which is designed to safely take the rover through a fiery descent in the Martian atmosphere and then softly land it on the surface of the Red Planet.

In addition to its late development start, the landing system has a complicated share of responsibilities between Russia and Europe, which greatly slows down the work. For example, the overall landing system is being developed by NPO Lavochkin in Moscow, while its parachute system will be provided by Europe. Many other aspects of the mission are similarly intertwined.

To further complicate matters, NPO Lavochkin, which traditionally builds all Russian planetary probes, but also some of the highly classified military satellites, is notorious for its Soviet-style secrecy. As a result, it is harder for the two sides to coordinate the work, Europeans sources said. Finally, the translation of documents between Russian and English further delays the work on the project.

Russia essentially bailed out the ExoMars in 2012 after NASA had withdrawn from the project citing financial problems. Some observers believed that the US agency might have seen ExoMars as a challenge to its leading role in the prestigious and highly publicized field of Martian exploration. However NASA still provided low-cost, but important scientific contribution to the ExoMars project.

Moreover, even after US-Russian relations hit a new low over the crisis in Ukraine, the US did not impose restrictions on the export of sensitive technologies to Russia, thus allowing the integration of the ExoMars spacecraft containing US-made components. ExoMars will be launched on a Russian Proton/Briz-M rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Ironically, the delay to 2020 will place the ExoMars in the same launch window as NASA's brand-new rover bound to the Red Planet. A modified version of the Mars Science Laboratory, MSL, Curiosity rover is expected to carry the so-called "caching" device, which will store Martian soil samples for the subsequent return to Earth.

Launches to Mars are possible roughly every two years. The 2018 launch window (like the window of 2003, 15 years earlier) allowed maximum payload to be sent to Mars. As a result, the delay of ExoMars to 2020 could require some mass-saving cuts within its hardware.

ExoMars faces money problems

While engineers were tackling technical challenges, the overall cost of the ExoMars program continued to climb beyond the available limit of 1 billion Euros. Even before 2014, estimates showed that the price tag for the ExoMars mission would increase from around 950 million to some 1.2 billion Euros. However this year, industry insiders speculated that the price could go as high as 1.5 billion. As of mid-2014, it was still unclear whether the ESA would be able to close this widening funding gap. At the time, ESA was preparing to apply for extra funding, however the year-end ministerial conference, which traditionally approves European space budgets, did not put ExoMars on the agenda. As a result, issues with ExoMars funding would have to be resolved during consultations leading to the ministerial meeting. Failure to find additional cash could lead to the complete cancellation of the project, sources familiar with the matter said.

Ironically, the postponement of the ExoMars launch from 2018 to 2020 further increased its price. When NASA had to delay the launch of its Curiosity rover from 2009 to 2011, it cost the US agency between $400 and $570 million extra. The ExoMars mission is a smaller project, therefore its price increase over the same period was speculated at around 200 million Euro at the time.

Sources familiar with the situation said that very often national space agencies in Europe, such as the Italian Space Agency, ASI, or French Space Agency, CNES, look at ESA projects as a way of keeping national aerospace and high-tech industries alive and thriving. In particular, the ExoMars was funded as an "optional" project rather than through the agency's "mandatory" scientific program. This status reflected political and industrial motivations rather than a purely scientific rationale among the main drivers behind the ExoMars project, insiders say.

Under such circumstances, the postponement of the ExoMars launch, which would still guarantee funding and jobs for the industry, was predicted to be much more preferable to the cancellation of the project.

The ExoMars project is led by the Italian Space Agency, ASI, with significant contributions from Russia, France, Germany, US and the UK.

Europe bails out ExoMars in 2016

A serious financial problem facing the ExoMars rover mission was finally resolved at the end of 2016. On the eve of the ministerial conference in Lucerne, Switzerland, on Dec. 1-2, 2016, which was to determine the Europe's space budget, the ExoMars developers found the way to bail out the project. According to industry sources, Italy, UK, France, Germany, Sweden, Portugal, Belgium and Spain agreed to pony up around 350 million Euro to cover the shortfall in the ExoMars project.

With the money secured and the launch date recently pushed back from the unreachable May 2018 to the much more realistic window of 2020, the project emerged from the major crisis it had found itself in just a year ago. However, the technical challenges of the program still remain as complex as before. Probably far the biggest problem is the byzantine inter-relations between European and Russian components of the mission.

In Russia, NPO Lavochkin, the prime developer of the ExoMars lander, had to mobilize most of its resources to get the 2-ton platform ready for the new launch date. The company's management made the ExoMars development an absolute priority, applying pressure at all levels and essentially putting all other projects on the backburner.



Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: March 13, 2020

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: July 29, 2014

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The ExoMars spacecraft in its cruise configuration during the flight between the Earth and Mars. Credit: NPO Lavochkin


The descent stage and the cruise stage of the ExoMars spacecraft will separate in the vicinity of the Red Planet. Credit: NPO Lavochkin


The ExoMars lander will descent to the surface using a heat shield, a parachute and a rocket-propelled landing system. Credit: NPO Lavochkin




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