Despite Schiaparelli Lander Crash, ESA Still Gets Funding Greenlighted For ExoMars Mission

About a month and a half after the shocking Schiaparelli lander crash in late October, the European Space Agency will still be pushing on with the ExoMars mission, and will still be launching a U.K.-made rover to explore the surface of Mars. This comes after research officials agreed on Friday to inject 450 million Euros ($480 million U.S.) worth of funds for the mission.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, the ExoMars funding was green-lit as part of a broader budget approved over a two-day meeting in Lucerne, Switzerland. The 10.3 billion Euro ($11 billion) budget approved by the ESA also includes funds for projects connected to the International Space Station, with a shade over 800 million Euros going to ESA’s involvement in the ISS, and 153 million going toward ISS-related science projects.

As the BBC noted, the ExoMars mission is already behind schedule as it is, and expenses have spiraled beyond what was originally projected. This had raised concerns that ESA member states may have to abandon the mission entirely. But with Friday’s decision, the research ministers have confirmed that ExoMars will be pushing forward, even in the aftermath of the Schiaparelli lander crash and with the mission being delayed and over budget.

Still, the stakes are higher now for ESA, as Reuters quoted a statement from the agency’s director, Jan Woerner, saying that it is “not an option” to delay the ExoMars mission beyond 2020. As such, ESA scientists will have to work overtime to make sure that the Mars rover is on schedule.

“It’s not an easy thing, but we are confident we will succeed.”

It was in October of this year when the Schiaparelli lander had crashed due to a software glitch, as the lander detached its parachute and turned off its braking thrusters over two miles above the Martian surface. This was due to the software issues confusing the lander, making it “think” it was on the ground when, in fact, it was well above the surface. That marked a major setback for those involved in the ExoMars mission, but the people behind the mission are confident that they have learned from that setback.

“As it is, we have one part that works very well and one part that didn’t work as we expected,” said ExoMars project scientist Jorge Vago, quoted by the CSMonitor from a report by Nature. “The silver lining is that we think we have in hand the necessary information to fix the problem.”

The CSMonitor added that the ExoMars team is even more optimistic and enthusiastic about their mission’s chances following the release of the first batch of photos from the Trace Gas Orbiter. The orbiter includes the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS), an instrument that snaps high-quality photos of Mars’ surface as the TGO orbits around Mars every four days. CaSSIS team leader Nicolas Thomas described the images as “absolutely spectacular,” as the team eventually hopes that the instrument would soon create 3D maps of the Martian surface as well.

While the research ministers gave the ExoMars mission their full support, the Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) was one of the projects that didn’t get unanimous approval at the Lucerne meeting. Woerner, however, noted that asteroid defense research would continue somehow within ESA, making a quick reference to Bruce Willis’ 1998 film Armageddon.

“These asteroid activities, looking at how we can really defend our planet in case something is happening and Bruce Willis is not ready to do it a second time… will be continued.”

Still, the most important takeaway from the meeting was the continued support for the ExoMars mission in the light of October’s Schiaparelli lander crash. Roberto Battiston, president of Italy’s space agency ASI, said that deciding on this was “probably the most challenging” of the topics covered in the meeting, due to the amount of resources already spent on the mission.

“This was justified by the detailed analysis presented by ESA. We are covering about 45 percent of the total cost of the mission, which makes us the country that is particularly sensitive to the cost of it.”

[Featured Image by European Space Agency/Getty Images]