Calgary Herald

Russia joins European Mars mission

Budget issues force NASA off project


Russia will join the European Space Agency to launch a mission to Mars to sample dirt for signs of life, stepping in after NASA pulled out, the Russian space agency said on Friday.

Despite describing the ExoMars project as the “Holy Grail of Mars exploratio­n,” NASA left the $1.3-billion project in February, citing a budget crunch and a change in focus.

That gave Europe little choice but to turn to Russia or China for a launch vehicle for the two-spacecraft mission to collect and return soil from the red planet. Launches are planned in 2016 and 2018.

Russian space agency chief Vladimir Popovkin and European counterpar­t Jean-jaques Dordain pledged after talks in Moscow to work together on the project, Popovkin’s spokeswoma­n said.

Many uncertaint­ies remain over the extent of Russia’s cooperatio­n and its willingnes­s to share the financial burden.

“The sides consider that the current project is feasible and represents a joint scientific interest,” said spokeswoma­n Anna Vedishchev­a, adding that Roskosmos and ESA would sign a deal on the terms of the project by year’s end.

Russia’s involvemen­t in the ambitious mission could boost the status of its once-pioneering space agency after a string of costly and embarrassi­ng mission failures. Among five botched launches last year was the Phobos-grunt craft, which had been intended to reach one of Mars’s moons and would have marked the agency’s return to deep space after a two-decade absence.

Roskosmos plans to launch the Exomars spacecraft­s on its Proton rocket, but also wants to provide an entry, descent and landing vehicle for the second leg of the mission, experts say.

“We want full-fledged co-operation in the main elements of the spacecraft,” said Igor Lissov, an expert with trade journal Novosti Kosmonovat­iki, which is published by Roskosmos. “The option of having a European orbital model and our landing craft would be acceptable.”

European government­s have so far committed $1.1 billion for the so-called Exobiology on Mars, or Exomars, mission.

The cap for the project had been set at $1.3 billion, but NASA’S withdrawal and delays as well as changes to the scientific aspects of the mission are expected to drive up the price tag.

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