Mars Daily is reporting that the European Space Agency and the Russian Space Agency have signed an official agreement to conduct the two stage ExoMars mission, which at one time involved NASA.
ExoMars to take place in 2016 and 2018
Mars Daily notes that ExoMars will take place in two stages. First, a combined orbiter and lander would be launched to Mars in 2016. The orbiter would search for signs of methane in the Martian atmosphere, considered signs of microbial life on the Red Planet. The lander, a stationary probe, would test certain technologies for the second stage. The second stage would consist of a rover that would be launched in 2018. It would be equipped with a drill capable of penetrating to two meters beneath the Martian surface where scientists suggest that microbial life may be present, protected from the harsh environment of the Martian surface and in contact with subsurface water.
Russian contributions to ExoMars
Russia will contribute its Proton launch vehicles to both the 2016 and 2018 missions, according to Mars Daily. The RSA would also provide a descent module for the 2018 rover as well as a surface platform. Both agencies will provide a number of scientific instruments to the two stage mission.
NASA pulled out of the ExoMars project
The Washington Post noted in February 2012 that Obama administration budget cuts to NASA planetary science missions obliged the American space agency to pull out of the ExoMars mission, to which it was planned to contribute $1.4 billion. The abrupt cuts and the subsequent cancellation of NASA's participation in the ExoMars project caused considerable consternation in Congress and among the planetary science community. It also forced NASA to reassess its own Mars exploration program.
Europe reached out to Russia
The sudden loss of NASA as a partner in the ExoMars mission forced the European Space Agency to reach out to Russia as a replacement, according to Space Flight Daily. In November, the European Space Agency and the Russian Space Agency agreed in principle to the cooperative arrangement. NASA, while no longer a major partner in the Mars exploration mission, pledged to contribute a telecommunications payload for the 2016 orbiter that would permit it to communicate with both probes on the Martian surface and with Earth. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden also promised that NASA would contribute a "significant instrument" to the ExoMars project. This is a joint European/American instrument called the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA) that will heat Martian soil to look for markers for organic materials.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo, The Last Moonwalker, and Dreams of Barry's Stepfather. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.
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