ESA's ExoMars mission has been struggling with budgeting problems ever since NASA pulled out of the project in 2012

ESA will sign the final ExoMars contract

European Space Agency (ESA) will sign the final €50m contract with Thales Alenia Space during the Paris Air Show for the first part of the agency’s cutting-edge ExoMars mission.

The investment is expected to be approved by Europe’s Science Programme Committee in the upcoming days, Space News has revealed.

The two-launch Mars mission, scheduled for 2016 and 2018, encountered a string of financing problems after Nasa had partially withdrawn from the project following cuts in the US space budget in 2012. The project was saved by Russia becoming a full partner. Nevertheless, ESA had to invest additional €200m into the mission as it had to accept greater role in the venture.  

The contract with Thales Alenia Space has a nominal value of some €650m, but ESA has been parceling it into increments during the past three years, often at three-month intervals, to push Thales Alenia to deliver the hardware in time for the critical 2016 launch.

ESA Science Director Alvaro Gimenez said the agency is persuaded that Thales Alenia Space and its industrial team has made good on its promise to deliver the hardware needed for the January 2016 launch in time for its integration and launch aboard a Russian Proton rocket.

“These guys have done an amazing job under difficult circumstances,” Gimenez said of the ExoMars industrial team and Thales Alenia Space’s ability to keep moving forward with the programme despite the stop-and-go funding. “That is all over — finally,” Gimenez said. “This three-month funding is really not the way to manage a programme, but the project is advancing very well.”

Several ESA member-state delegations questioned the ability of Thales Alenia to deliver the flight hardware in time, forcing ESA to put extra pressure on the contractor. In case the 2016 launch window for the first mission is missed, the mission will experience severe data relay complications.

In 2016, an orbiter, providing telecommunications relay, and an atmospheric analyser, are scheduled to be deliver to Martian orbit. At the same time, a stationary lander will be dropped at the surface of Mars where it will await the 2018 delivery of a scientific rover. Without the prior delivery of the communications equipment, the rover will have problems sending data back to Earth.

The expected total investment of ESA into the ExoMars project is about €1.2bn. So far, the agency has raised €850m from its member states but still misses some €150m to fulfil its commitment.

For now, the whole costs of the first mission are covered plus some portions of the 2018 launch. The contract to be signed on 17 June regards the European scientific rover and the Europe-provided carrier that will house the rover during a descent in a Russia-provided landing module.

Some questions were raised regarding Russia’s ability to build such an advanced piece of hardware as a Martian landing module as Russia’s previous attempt at sending a probe to Mars – the infamous Phobos Grunt spacecraft – resulted in an embarrassing fiasco.

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