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ESA chief says funding for delayed ExoMars rover mission uncertain

ExoMars TGO and EDM

European Space Agency Director-General Johann-Dietrich Woerner has expressed frustration with the equipment delays that forced a two-year slip in the launch of Europe’s ExoMars rover vehicle and said he would not write a blank check to keep the mission alive.

Addressing a briefing here, where he was attending ESA’s Living Planet Earth observation symposium, Woerner said he still did not fully understand why the project could not make its 2018 launch date. He wondered whether it is possible to have those responsible for the delay finance part of its cost.

“I was not only surprised, I was frustrated with this delay, which was for technical reasons on both the European and Russian sides,” Woerner said, adding that at first he did not accept it.

“I was fighting like hell” to keep the mission on schedule despite indications that multiple pieces of equipment would not make it in time for the launch, he said. “I’m very upset about it and I don’t understand it from a certain point of view.”

Woerner became ESA’s chief in July 2015. Before that he was head of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, which is Germany’s space agency. Germany has long resisted the mission creep of ExoMars – which began years ago has a technology-demonstration mission and has since grown into a telecommunications orbiter and landing demonstrator that launched in March, and the European rover and Euro-Russian surface-experiment package that was to have followed in 2018.

The Russian and European space agencies in March began hinting that the second mission – both launched by Russian Proton rockets – was having trouble meeting its deadlines for unspecified reasons. The two agencies later said they agreed to the two-year delay.

As the ExoMars mission has increased in sophistication and scientific value, its budget has about doubled, to as much as 1.3 billion euros ($1.5 billion). ESA has raised only about 1 billion euros. Before the latest delay, the agengy had expected to present its 22 member states in June with a plan to raise the remaining monies.

The two-year delay will add more costs, although ESA plans to reduce the increase by doing as much work as can be done soon, then storing the hardware until needed for prelaunch preparations in 2020.

ExoMars is ESA’s sole exploration mission. It also represents a substantial Euro-Russian collaboration that has already launched a telecommunications relay designed to beam the rover’s findings to Earth.


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