Sunday, October 2, 2011

Another conference and more bad news looming

ESA's TGO - Last ditch negotiations are expected Monday in South Africa at the International Astronautical Congress to see if this mission can be saved.

As I was crossing the Atlantic, Universe Today was reporting some details about the negotiations between ESA and NASA with respect to the ESA Exo-Mars program. From the sound of the article, barring some last ditch maneuvering at this week's IAC meeting in South Africa, Trace Gas Orbiter could be nearing the end of the road.

To quickly recap, the European Exo-Mars program is made up of two components. First, an orbiter to look into trace gasses in the martian atmosphere, particularly methane, called Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). Second, a capable drilling robot called the Exo-Mars rover. TGO was planned for a 2016 launch and Exo-Mars for a 2018 launch (though TGO has now likely slipped to 2018).

The second of these, the rover, was the subject of some negotiating earlier in the spring when NASA's planetary decadal survey recommended restructuring this mission. Initially Exo-Mars would have been joint with NASA's planned astrobiology/Mars Sample Return rover MAX-C, both being deployed simultaneously with one sky crane. Now the agencies are looking at ways to merge the two missions into one.

But the orbiter wasn't safe either. While NASA considers each to be completely separate missions, on the ESA side they are part of the same program. Commitment papers from NASA were due at ESA in late June. Due to budget uncertainty, NASA was unable to deliver these. As such, work has been shut down over the summer on TGO. There was a second deadline of September 15th for a decision from NASA on this commitment and, from the sound of the article, this deadline may have also been missed.

Now comes the news that NASA may be unable to provide the launch vehicle, an Atlas-V, for TGO. Universe Today reports that attempts are being made for the Europeans to acquire a cheaper proton launcher from the Russians. If that deal cannot be completed, it may force the cancellation of TGO. Perhaps counter-intuitively, while ESA heads the project, many of the individual instrument teams have leadership and significant participation from US sources (the MATMOS instrument, for instance, is being co-developed by Caltech and the CSA). Thus a cancellation would be bad for both agencies. Still, it is not yet known how much funding NASA will be able to contribute.

As well, as I have previously commented, there would be a significant science cost to eliminating TGO. While MSL can perform the atmospheric methane measurement with similar fidelity, it can only provide one data point. You really need the seasonal variation and orbital mapping capabilities that you can only get with an orbiter to really understand what is going on with this molecule on Mars.

Look for more information on this story in the next few days.

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