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ExoMars postponed. Again.

If robots can become celebrities, then NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers, “Spirit” and “Opportunity”, are A Listers, at least in the scientific world. Beloved by professional planetary scientists and armchair astronauts alike, Spirit and ‘Oppy’  (I wonder if Spirit gets jealous her name can’t be abbreviated to a nickname? Doesn’t seem fair somehow…) have been exploring the Red Planet for well over 5 years now, and although each rover has almost died more than once, for various reasons, they’re still there, still roving, still photographing, still showing us Mars in ways we’ve never seen before. They could die any day, of course, but seem rather reluctant to do that.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency’s own ambitious Mars rover project – “ExoMars” – has just been delayed again.

Unlike the MERs – which are multi-tasking robots, happy to study the martian weather one day and the planet’s geology the next – ExoMars was designed from the start with one purpose and one purpose only: to look for signs of life on Mars, past or present. Like a MER it has a full suite of cameras and instruments. Like a MER it has a robot arm. But, unlike a MER, ExoMars has a drill. Not just a teeny tiny drill either; we’re talking Bruce Willis in Armageddon drill!

Ok, maybe not quite that big, but it’s definitely a dtrill to be reckoned with, capable of drilling down to a depth of 2m, where – sheltered from the sterilising rays of the Sun – conditions might be more hospitable for primitive martian lifeforms. That alone makes ExoMars a mission to be excited about.

When ExoMars was “born”, it was christened by some as “the Top Gear” rover, because, with ist sleek, sexy, polished design it looked like something those three overgrown schoolboys from the BBC’s flagship petrol head program would dream up…

exomars_rover

That’s the drill over on its left side, see? That thing that looks like a rocket launcher or a bazooka! Just look at that shiny hull, the trimmed wheels, the Porscheness of it all…

But that ExoMars was just too beautiful to survive, and as the mission’s budget began to climb higher and faster than an Ariane 5 rocket, and the science demands of the mission became clearer, the rover’s design changed. Dramatically. When the revised design was unveiled it wasn’t so much Top Gear as Open University…

Exomars_24_10_small

Not so sexy, I know, but definitely more practical. And the drill’s still there, although it’s now worn “off the shoulder”, so to speak.

ExoMars was originally scheduled to lift off for Mars in 2011, but its launch was postponed until 2013. That was a great disappointment, but not entirely unexpected; budgets were being squeezed, and the rover clearly wasn’t going to be ready in time. Then, in October 2008, the mission’s launch was delayed again, from 2013 to 2016, and across the space community alarm bells started to ring. ExoMars seemed like it was turning into the Greatest Mission That Would Never Reach Mars. But ESA insisted the rover was a good program, and would return great science.

Yesterday came news of another delay in launching ExoMars, the third. The rover will now not travel to Mars until 2018.

Now the alarm bells really are ringing.

ESA are putting a very positive spin on this delay, insisting that it will mean ExoMars will be able to do much better science and be much more productive on the red planet as a result of it. ESA says that the “launch window” of 2018 is much more useful than the one of 2016, because Earth and Mars will be positioned more favourably, meaning that a much heavier ( = more complicated) payload (= spacecraft) can be sent to Mars then.

The plan is now clearly to involve NASA in ExoMars, not least by having them launch it on one of their rockets. ESA and NASA recently agreed to join in the exploration of Mars, to co-ordinate their programs to maximise science. So, under this new arrangement, ExoMars will fly to Mars in 2018, two years after a ESA/NASA arrives at Mars to study and pin down the exact locations of the mysterious “methane plumes” found there. Then, guided by the orbiter’s results,  ExoMars, and possibly a smaller, MER-class rover too, would land on Mars close to the source of one of the methane deposits and study it in great detail, obviously with a view to seeing if there is life there.

ExoMars was originally going to land on Mars using the same airbag technology as Spirit and Oppy, but it now seems it will be delivered to the martian surface using the same “Skycrane” technology that has been developed for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, which itself has suffered launch delays.

So, is this good news, as ESA is suggesting, or is it a sign that ExoMars is in real trouble?

Hey, don’t ask me, I’m no expert. But I will be honest, I just have a bad, bad, bad feeling about this whole mission. I hate saying this, but it just seems, I don’t know, too big for ESA, for us, you know? Without any experience of building or operating even a small Sojourner-class rover, it feels like we’re trying to run – a marathon… across the Sahara… blindfolded – before we can walk. It’s a hugely expensive program, ExoMars, and its cost seems determined to keep climbing towards “Aww, forget it, that’s too much!”; it failed for financial reasons, before even reaching Mars, it would both cripple our planetary science budget and make us look like bloody idiots too.

Then there’s the way the mission’s science would be handled, too. Is ESA ready for something that big, that important? Despite having made some strides forward when it comes to sharing information from its missions with the people who pay for those missions – the European taxpayer – ESA still doesn’t quite seem to “get” the importance of making sure the public feel involved with the missions they pay for through their taxes. Every space enthusiast knows the basic, fundamental, slap-across-the-face obvious difference between NASA and ESA: NASA lets people see as much as they can as soon as they can, with the “raw” images from missions like CASSINI and the MER rovers flashing up on websites daily and with almost dizzying speed. ESA, however, seems to be deternined to horde its data and only release pictures a few at a time, giving them up to us reluctantly, like treats tossed from the top table at a banquet. It’s frustrating, disrespectful, and wrong, and it leaves many Europeans feeling excluded from ESA’s missions. Actually, many Europeans are unaware Europe actually has a space agency, they hear so little about it. Which is pretty bloody stupid.

I have no doubt ESA will get a grip on this… one day. All – hmmm, ok, most – of the people I’ve dealt with at ESA are dedicated and hard working, and want people like me, the great unwashed European taxpayer, to feel excited by and a part of their work, even if they’re not sure how to help make that happen. But I can’t help wondering how they’d handle a real rover mission to Mars. Would they follow the “MER model” and embrace the concept of daily image releases? Would they put up raw images as soon as they came in? Would they actively encourage space exploration enthusiasts to take those raw images, work with them, and turn them into new, original products? I’m not sure, I’m just not sure. But I am sure that if they didn’t follow the MER path then ExoMars would be a PR disaster, seen by the  European public as nothing more than an expensive toy for overpaid, cold, arrogant and detached from reality boffins. And that’s exactly what I fear might happen.

But let’s look on the bright side. A lot can happen in nine years, that’s more than enough time for ESA to get its act together and ensure an ExoMars rover became every bit as inspiring and exciting to the public as Spirit or Oppy. So, if NASA and ESA get their heads together and make this program work, and if ESA embraces outreach and “citizen science”, and if the program’s budget can be reined in, and if everything else goes according to plan, ExoMars could be a program to be proud of.

But I can’t help feeling very pessimistic about ExoMars. Money is going to be increasingly tight in the years to come. Politicians are going to be looking for ways of cutting costs. The public aren’t even aware that Europe has plans for a Mars rover. The signs aren’t good, and there are dark storm clouds on the horizon, no matter which way ExoMars looks.

Don’t get me wrong, I desperately want the program to succeed. I want to be sitting at a computer (or whatever gadget we have by then!) in 2018, watching pictures coming back live from Mars, listening to a joint ESA/NASA press conference announcing the discovery of life on Mars. It’s just, I don’t know, I have this gut feeling that the rover is never going to make it to Barsoom. In the week when we celebrated the landing of an Eagle on the Moon, 40 years ago, another type of bird is circling ExoMars, and getting very, very hungry…

xv s

I may be wrong. I really, really hope I’m wrong. We’ll just have to wait and see. And keep our fingers crossed.

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2 Responses

  1. Why just sell it to China.

  2. Yes, if there’s any lesson to be learned from the last few decades it’s that “too big to fail” must be avoided because whatever it is will fail eventually and the delay in killing it off will just make the eventual mess worse. Obviously outside the space programs but also inside: the Shuttle is something that should have been drowned at birth but too many people had too much invested in it for that to happen. Let’s hope the Augustine commission gives Obama the needed kick to get the bucket out for the Constellation (or at least Aries) program.

    If ESA are having problems with the technology for ExoMars (i.e., they don’t have the budget to work around issues this year) then they should can the whole program and do something simpler which works with easily available technology while running subsidiary projects to sort out the technology required for later. In my much smaller scale experience, mixing technology development with a specific engineering project is a bad idea – each is hard enough on its own but putting the two together seems to have a multiplicative effect rather than just additive.

    And yes again, even if NASA weren’t doing cool things anyway they should be getting a lot of credit for being so remarkably open – something all government (and even commercial *) agencies should be learning from. This habitual secrecy is one of the few big minuses for European styles of government in my opinion.

    You don’t mention Hubble but that’s pretty much the poster child of public outreach benefiting a project. If it hadn’t been for the (disproportionate, IMHO) public support for that telescope the last servicing mission wouldn’t have happened.

    (*) Sun Microsystems, for example, gets a lot of kudos for its openness and its liberal blogging policies.

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