ESA continues talks with NASA on cooperation with ExoMars

COLORADO SPRINGS — The European Space Agency is continuing discussions with NASA on how the agencies can work together to revive ESA’s ExoMars mission after ending cooperation with Russia.

ESA announced on March 17 that it was suspending plans to launch the European-built rover mission in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia would launch the mission on a Proton missile and provide a landing pad and other components.

“It was not an easy decision,” Josef Aschbacher, director general of ESA, said during a panel of space agency leaders at the 37th space symposium on April 6. Scientists and engineers had been working on the mission for years, and the rover is now nearing completion. At the time of the decision to suspend work with Russia, it was prepared to ship to the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

He thanked NASA for contacting ESA and offering assistance with ExoMars, adding in a later interview that discussions between the agencies are continuing. “Our teams are working with NASA’s teams on the technical steps that need to be taken,” he said.

The agencies are looking at options to replace ExoMars’ Russian elements, such as the launch vehicle and landing pad. Other components supplied by Russia were radioisotope heating units to keep the rover warm at night, a technology often used by NASA, but much less mature for ESA.

Another option that ESA is pursuing is to replace Russian components with European ones. Aschbacher said studies are underway on the technical and financial aspects of both strategies, which should be completed by June. “I expect to have a decision from my member states in July,” he said, which would be part of the package for ESA’s ministerial meeting at the end of this year.

ESA is also studying options for launching missions that would fly on Soyuz missiles from French Guiana that were stranded by Russia’s February decision to halt such launches. Those missions include two pairs of Galileo navigation satellites, two ESA science missions and a French reconnaissance satellite.

Aschbacher said ESA is studying ways to launch those satellites using Ariane 6 and Vega C launch vehicles, both of which will make their inaugural launches this year. That will depend in part on an ongoing review of ramping up Ariane 6 launches expected to happen within a month. At the time, he said ESA will be better able to determine how to launch those payloads.

“One option could be that we have to look at options for backup launchers for a limited period of time,” he said, including non-European launchers. “I would expect that this would be a very limited period of time where we would need such solutions and then we can fully rely on Ariane 6.”

Aschbacher, like NASA officials, said the International Space Station’s operations remain unaffected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and that ESA was preparing proposals to extend its role on the ISS until 2030. “We are working on the normal continuation of IS operations.”

Aschbacher told the panel that shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian government asked to join ESA. “This is a big decision and not something that can be done very quickly,” he said in the interview, detailing a years-long process that countries must follow to become full members. “This is not something that will happen tomorrow.”

He said ESA is considering ways to help Ukraine in the short term, such as providing satellite data to support damage assessments and agriculture. “I would expect significant financial support from the West in rebuilding Ukraine, and space can help.”

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