4th Apr 2020

US bins joint EU project to visit Mars

  • Nye: 'How many government programmes can you think of that consistently fill people with pride, awe, and wonder?' (Photo: S. Corvaja, European Space Agency)

The US is scrapping a joint project with the EU to land a robot on Mars due to lack of money.

Charles Bolden, the chief of US space agency Nasa, announced the move at a press conference in Washington on Monday (13 February) on how his agency plans to spend its 2013 budget.

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He said: "Tough choices had to be made ... This means we will not be moving forward with the planned 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions that we had been exploring with the European Space Agency (Esa)."

He added the US is not giving up on Mars as such: "This administration remains committed to a vibrant and co-ordinated strategy of Mars exploration ... Our goals include not only new path-breaking robotic missions to Mars, but also future human missions."

President Barack Obama has said the US aims to land men on Mars in the mid-2030s.

He plans to spend $17.7 billion on Nasa next year, a figure slightly down on 2012. But if Congress approves the draft budget, Nasa's planetary science programme will be cut by 20 percent from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion.

Esa could not be contacted for a comment on Tuesday morning.

The Paris-based, €4-billion-a-year agency is funded by 19 EU countries. Its website says ExoMars was to land a robot vehicle which would "travel several kilometres searching for traces of past and present signs of life" and to install a stationary science facility to see if the planet is habitable.

Russia and China have a competing Mars programme. But they suffered a setback on 15 January when Russia's so-called Phobos-Grunt probe, carrying a Chinese Mars-observation satellite, Yinghuo-1, fell into the sea.

In an echo of the Cold-War-era space race, Russian news agency Ria Novosti at the time said Russian investigators ruled out "external or foreign influence" in the crash.

For their part, planetary scientists voiced dismay about the Nasa-Esa decision.

Ed Weiler, a former Nasa researcher who designed its Mars plans, told Science Magazine: "Two years ago, because of budget cuts in the Mars programme, I had to appeal to Europe to merge our programmes ... That process took two long years of very delicate negotiations."

He added: "So, you develop a capability nobody else has, the so-called EDL capability - entry, descent and landing - that took a long time, that took decades. If you let that die, you don't just go out to K-Mart and hire new people to do it again."

Bill Nye, the head of the Pasadena, California-based Planetary Society, said in a written statement: "How many government programmes can you think of that consistently fill people with pride, awe, and wonder? Nasa's planetary exploration programme is one of the few, and so it seems particularly ironic and puzzling that it has been so specifically targeted for such drastic budget cuts."

The next window for landings on Mars is from 2018 to 2020, when the two planets' orbits bring them closer together.

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