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Europe at Mars: Are we nearly there yet?

Jonathan Amos | 17:12 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

You have to wonder sometimes whether it is a rollercoaster that Europe plans on sending to Mars rather than a rover – such are the ups and downs and the sweeping curves on its ExoMars project.

ExoMars

ExoMars: Another evolution beckons

The rover was originally envisaged as a small-ish technology demonstration mission which could show that Europe was able to land on the Red Planet, trundle around to interesting places, and drill beneath the surface.

The science would concentrate on looking for signs of past or present life. But the concept for achieving all this has gone through iteration after iteration.

Now we hear that the finished design for ExoMars, which was presented at the end of last year, will have to be re-written once more.

Engineers are being asked to scope something new – bigger perhaps, better perhaps, but something new… again.

The idea of a European exobiology rover at the Red Planet was first mooted in 1999, and after a series of studies its formal implementation as a project was approved in 2005 by European Space Agency member states.

But almost immediately, the robot concept started to grow in size as the ambitions for what it could and should achieve also grew.

Soon, it was too big to fit on a Soyuz rocket and needed an Ariane or Proton launcher to send it on its way. And, as is often the case with complex space projects, its projected costs rose as well. I don’t think many of us were that surprised when its scheduled launch was pushed back, and pushed back, and back again.

The decision in 2009 of Nasa and Esa to merge their exploration programmes at the Red Planet offered a way out of this cul-de-sac.

For Europe, it meant the ExoMars rover could hitch a free ride on an American rocket in 2018.

The US wanted to send another rover of its own at that time, so as long as the two robots could fit into the same landing mechanism together everything ought to be fine. But recent events have upset this tidy arrangement.

The US has decided the cost structure envisaged for 2018 simply cannot be afforded in the current fiscal environment. 

So Europe finds itself changing direction once again on ExoMars.

It is now proposed that the European robot and the American vehicle planned to accompany it in 2018 be combined into a single rover.

Rovers packed up

New drawing needed:  The idea had been to send ExoMars and a US rover together on the same mission opportunity 

This new robot is likely to be substantially bigger than either of the two previous concepts.

It is being described as a “European” vehicle. It should incorporate all the instruments planned for ExoMars, including the drill to go below the Martian surface. But it should carry some American instruments, and its manipulator arm will come from the US, as will a system to package – or cache – rocks.

Both Nasa and Esa have this idea that 2018 should be the start of “Mars sample return” – the objective of bringing rocks back to Earth for study in the lab. In 2018 they will begin this process by finding the right rocks and packing them up. A later mission will be despatched to try to retrieve them. 

The key thing about this new-evolution rover is that it borrows heavily from the equipment designed for the upcoming American "MSL-Curiosity" rover. This is one way of keeping costs as low as possible.

MSL is big: It weighs about 900kg

MSL-Curiosity is big: It weighs about 900kg

Curiosity launches at the end of this year and is due to land in the August of 2012. I don’t know if you’ve seen how this rover intends to get down on to the surface, but the idea is that it will be lowered to the ground by a rocket-powered skycrane.

Nasa and Esa want to re-use this architecture for 2018. Thefore, all of the landing gear – the entry capsule, the skycrane, and the tether system that does the actual lowering – will come from the US.

So there you go. All the design work in Europe that has been done since 2005 is going to have to go through yet another iteration.

Perhaps you’ve been to an event in the UK where you’ve seen a prototype of the ExoMars chassis – a six-wheeled trolley called either Bridget or Bruno. Well, put that to the back of your mind because engineers will soon have to produce another one to fit with new specifications.

Well in excess of 100 million euros has been spent on the ExoMars programme to date. Critics will raise their eyebrows at this, given the latest developments, but it would not be true to say all this money has somehow been wasted.

Much of the technology developed for ExoMars will find its way into the new vehicle. But you would be forgiven if you had a little voice in the back of your head saying, “are we nearly there yet?”.

2018 is really not that far away in the context of space mission preparation. Engineers on both sides of the Atlantic are now going to have to crack on and deliver a workable concept.

It will be interesting also to see how much of the development of this vehicle is led from the UK.

Britain has committed 165 million euros to ExoMars to secure primacy for itself on the rover.

Will we now see a big, six-wheeled robot being assembled in the UK? I certainly hope so.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Another one of the many benefits of a space elevator/space gun/launch loop/ space fountain/mass driver is that we don't need to take as much time or money making sure each individual mission will work perfectly and could afford more screw ups. Really wish they'd put more effort into making a cheap method of getting into space.

  • Comment number 2.

    Aren't there enough hungry pepole on this planet ?!!
    should we really go around wasting so much money on creating hunger and suffering on other planets as well...?!!

  • Comment number 3.

    Yes, noam, there are too many hungry people on this planet. How do you propose to help them? By crippling the continued growth and progress we need to ensure the long-term survival of civilisation? What the Third World actually needs to get out of the poverty trap is honest government (which only they can supply, unless you want to colonise them and install a military governor) and opportunities for profitable economic growth, which we can probably help with, not by subsidising them but simply by good lawmaking. Think of how Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and so on succeeded. But it's not easy, and not something we can make happen by hobbling our own progress.

    How exactly do you propose to create "hunger and suffering" on planets which are completely lifeless, or populated at most by bacterial-level organisms? By setting up a human colony there, I suppose, but since that colony would necessarily come from the wealthiest section of our own society I don't see that you'd get hunger and suffering even then.

    If you want to eliminate hunger and suffering, you should be the greatest fan of progress in all its forms. For an excellent historical perspective on this, I recommend David Landes, "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations" (Abacus, 1998), which I've just been re-reading.

    Stephen
    Oxford, UK

  • Comment number 4.

    I recently attended a presentation given by two of Astrium's top guys on the ExoMars rover. The research and development work they had done was very impressive - specifically in the areas of 6-wheel steering and fully automated navigation. While it may be true that Bruno (who, incidentally, is one of my facebook friends) will not now be a direct ancestor of ExoMars, the groundbreaking technology that went into his design will almost certainly be a part of the eventual vehicle. This means that much of the technology in the next mars lander will certainly have been concieved and most likely built by British scientists and engineers. A point worthy of some pride I think!

  • Comment number 5.

    #1 Eamon Sloan wrote:

    Another one of the many benefits of a space elevator/space gun/launch loop/ space fountain/mass driver is that we don't need to take as much time or money making sure each individual mission will work perfectly and could afford more screw ups. Really wish they'd put more effort into making a cheap method of getting into space.
    ---
    Eamon its tradition! They use rockets because they are 'traditional' - that is they already work and are already a tried and trusted technology. Todays political mind is so ultra conservative on things like this that they are unwilling to spend money on anything unless they are are already certain and have absolute proof that it will work. Even worse very often new methods are abandoned at the first prototype or the failed attempt - before they are even properly tried.
    Another big problem is people, it is often been said but without a (flamboyant visionary figurehead like) Von Braun we would probably not be in orbit even today. Even worse though how far would Von Braun himself really have gone without a Hitler to fund him? Germany wasn't allowed to develop aircraft and Hitler had money and a vision for scientific warfare and a utopian future society that depended on technology. Despite everything else that vision made the Nazi regime the most scientifically progressive party of the twentieth century and it made them fund space tech when it was no more than a bunch of of amateur's playing with toy rockets in a field.

    The real problem today is short term thinking verses long term thinking. -
    - In the short term view multi-stage low energy chemical rockets are always better because they already exist and are thus a proven tech. Future solutions are (automatically) seen as more expensive because they face high development costs and a lack of certainty or even a properly measurable high probability of success.
    - In the long term view todays rockets can be seen as a hugely expensive and inefficient and inferior solution. By this measuring stick more advanced hypothetical tech will almost by definition do the job many times better and orders of magnitude cheaper.
    In future development a vision and belief in the goals is everything. What are the current future goals of the space establishment? they are relatively small and very far in the future. Ironically bigger and faster generally means cheaper - but try convincing the people running things today....

  • Comment number 6.

    With regards to your comments Eamon Sloan, I think the privatisation of space travel will lead us much quicker into finding cheaper and more economical ways of reaching into space that any government funded bodies could do. Already we are seeing leaps in space technology thanks to the flights offered by Virgin Galactic. Im sure the space elevator idea, if it ever comes to fruition, will be because of a private company/consortium.

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 7.

    What concerns me is why do cost escalate the way they do? Every project ever funded by any government have this problem.
    Someone needs to give us taxpayers an explanation. Okay, so who is going to do the explaining?

  • Comment number 8.

    7. At 23:22pm 14th Apr 2011, g6ypk wrote:

    What concerns me is why do cost escalate the way they do? Every project ever funded by any government have this problem.
    Someone needs to give us taxpayers an explanation. Okay, so who is going to do the explaining?

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Presumably those with a vested interest and the most reason to lie. As usual.

  • Comment number 9.

    Jonathan,
    The short answer is "No, we haven't even started yet"
    I started working on Phase A back in 2005. I am currently stopped, because ESA are just starting Phase A again.
    My question is: "What were the last 6 years all about ?"
    If this is the way the 'Professionals' do it, then I think us 'amateurs' on Beagle 2 didn't do too badly !
    By the way we could have built and launched 3 Beagle 2 (improved) missions for the money that has been spent on paperwork so far on ExoMars.

    Disillusioned ? Me, you bet.

    Stuart Hurst,
    Stevenage.

  • Comment number 10.

    I hope the design they come up with is resuable, in as much as they can send more than one mission. Its easier to design a good product and repeat it, than to keep changing it all the time. Anyone think that this is a wait of time, then try getting hold of some moon rock and see how much has been found from it!

  • Comment number 11.

    10. Martin - I liked your 'freudian' slip "Anyone think that this is a wait of time.."
    but agree with your point.
    However I am concerned that the joint Rover will end up being 'committee designed' ie a 3-humped Camel or an Apollo 13 CO2 scrubber solution (square peg and round hole)
    As Doug McCuistion (NASA HQ) said yesterday “It’s not going to look like ExoMars, it’s not going to look like MSL; it’s going to be something new.”
    I hope that 'new' does not mean 'untried and untested'.
    We will know next year whether the MSL Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) system works. I very much hope it does.

    Stuart Hurst
    Stevenage

  • Comment number 12.

    @2 noam32
    Interesting enough most of the money is spent here on earth. Its used to pay scientists and engineers to work on the project and to pay companies to build the equipment. They obviously use that money is lots of ways, but in essence this money all supports the wider economy.

    Thats (one reason) why its important that it gets built here in Britain.

  • Comment number 13.

    > I hope the design they come up with is resuable, in as much as they can send more than one
    > mission. Its easier to design a good product and repeat it, than to keep changing it all the time.

    But, typically, something like a Mars probe will be obsolete before it's even launched the first time.

    It's hard enough (as the Exomars project demonstrates) to freeze the design for one probe for long enough for the thing to actually get built.

    You get this problem with IT projects too. You find you're aiming at a moving target, and often the specification changes so fast there's no chance of ever catching up with it. It's usually a case of too much politics and the power in the hands of people who really don't understand what's going on, and often whose commitment is more to their own status than to the success of the project.

    As to space elevators etc.. These things are no more than concepts and most of them will have to await large advances in, for example, materials science before they can even be designed, let alone tested.


  • Comment number 14.

    They used to say that UK invents it, the USA perfects it, and Japan sells it.

    Now what would the saying be the EU invents it?

    But, its the EU and the USA who are using it?

    The problem is who is selling it? Private industry IS important...for profit:)

    No offense to socialists :)

  • Comment number 15.

    #13. At 09:57am 25th Apr 2011, CobaltChicken wrote:
    ....
    As to space elevators etc.. These things are no more than concepts and most of them will have to await large advances in, for example, materials science before they can even be designed, let alone tested.
    --------
    That just isn't true at least at a basic level. I've read some of the scientific literature on many of these alternate methods of space launch and many of them are basically ready to go now except for basic development R&D and the money. Its the money of course thats always the real problem.

    Most of them do need substantial research to complete the practical engineering side but every new advance needs that. Even rockets didn't just grow out of the ground, they were the result of decades of painful development much of it before any real results or proof existed. Its that attitude of dismissing anything out of hand that is not already proven that has brought the pace of research in basic space science to a near stop.

    Take space elevators. Yes the most efficient type single strand elevators are still a way beyond todays materials tech, but multiple strand type elevators are well within what we can do and are possible today. We're talking about a ten year ten billion dollar time span to put up a working machine - and I dont even like elevators!
    Far better solutions might be Lofstrum loops or space fountains. Both are technically more complicated than elevators and will take longer to develop, but a single Lofstrum loop could deliver thousands of tons of payload into orbit every year including people at a cost of as little as $10 per kg.
    Even the most extreme elevator solution an Orbital Ring is actually within the bounds of possibility even today- at least technically. (Its costs might be several trillion dollars (1/2 one Iraq war) plus mayor disruption to the worlds transport economy around the equator)

    Then there is the nuclear tech, probably a lot cheaper and safer than most elevator tech, and already with a lot of testing and design work done. One of the most interesting solutions is nuclear lightbulb engines - plasma state fission based reactors delivering the optimum of efficiency and highest thrust ratios. Such engines could take a ship from Earth to Mars and back again in one stage in around a month. A great joke is that the same tech could solve most of the problems of the worlds current nuclear industry and current carbon neutral energy problem. .. But then again its not been tried and proven and needs to be developed and tested.. so it gets dismissed out of hand and isn't even mentioned in consideration.. Sigh..
    (better not mention gravity engines then ... ) :)

    Of course we don't even need to look at the more 'kooky' alternatives to rockets. (as I like to bang on about this) The space industry still hasn't even learned the basic lessons of mass aviation or those of shipping learned in the medieval period. How can a 747 cross the Atlantic without needing to refuel and do it safer and be far cheaper per passenger than crossing in an F16? A behemoth like the Sea Dragon rocket had a basic cost per kilogram at least 10 times smaller than todays rockets and it was purely because it's designed payload was 500 tons to orbit rather than 5.

  • Comment number 16.

    Stevenson wrote:

    "They used to say that UK invents it, the USA perfects it, and Japan sells it.
    Now what would the saying be the EU invents it?
    But, its the EU and the USA who are using it?"

    Sorry to break it to you but America has done more inventing than either the UK or Japan, especially in modern times. The UK, not to mention any so-called "European" organization, has never even landed a vehicle on Mars and now all of sudden the "UK invents" and "EU invents" in regards to sending a rover to Mars?

    Even the article says it all, a so-called "European" rover will be based on the soon to be launched American rover Curiousity and will land on Mars through an American landing system, not to mention even being sent up on an American rocket.

    All this would be is just another foolish move on NASA's and America's part in giving away more technologies and capabilities to an obvious competitor, and a hostile one if we consider the typical Europhile attitude. Of course so-called "Europe" will promote it as a "European" achievement.

  • Comment number 17.

    > Take space elevators. Yes the most efficient type single strand elevators are still a way beyond
    > todays materials tech, but multiple strand type elevators are well within what we can do and are
    > possible today.

    Single strand - multi strand, the fundamental problem is that we don't have a material that will support it's own weight on that scale.

    Buckytubes might just be edging up into that strength/weight ratio.

    And, of course, we are talking about a project so expensive it would beggar any of the world's economies.

    As to nuclear drives, they could be nice for interplanetary travel, where you want sustained, modest drives but they aren't going to get you out of the gravity well.

  • Comment number 18.

    Hi Cobalt chicken et al,
    Sorry when I talked about multi strand elevators I was talking about using a technique that reduces the stress requirements of the rope material at the expense of weight. Put simply the rope gets thicker towards the the middle of the span then thinner again as it extends towards the counter weight. The real problem is that the increased weight of the rope reduces the maximum payload -and their poor payload capacity is one of the main reasons I disliked elevators in the first place.
    As for costs that $10 billion estimate came from the literature. About 90% of the costs are simply lifting the materials into orbit, especially the counterbalance which needs to be put into a very high orbit and needs to be as heavy as possible.

    As for nuclear some of these engines have a theoretical specific impulse of 30,000 or more and actually twice the thrust to weight ratio of current chemical rockets. They have so much power that a single stage return trip to the moon is possible or a single machine could make multiple trips to orbit without refueling. There is also the possibility of doing away with heat shielding and doing full retro landing, something todays rockets cant even dream of.

    Gas Core Nuclear Reactors are more like a slow burning nuclear bomb than todays reactors and because of that the nuclear reaction is at least three times as efficient. - Which also means there's far less nuclear waste. The dirty secret of the nuclear industry is that bombs are generally a lot cleaner than reactors. (Bombs generally generate a lot of short term radiation but relatively little long term radiation, thats why Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be rebuilt but Chernobyl probably wont be for a hundred years or more, as for Fukushima...)

  • Comment number 19.

    Hadn't come across the "nuclear lightbulb" before. A very interesting possibility. Not a precedent for fissile materials in space either.

  • Comment number 20.

    No 2. Wrote:
    Aren't there enough hungry pepole on this planet ?!!
    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    So what we have been forced to give away our hard earned taxes so the so called "hungry people" can breed unhindered and sponge even more money from us.

    We are cutting our Education, NHS, Jobs, Welfare system, roads and what for ?
    So our glorious leaders can WASTE more of our tax money on the useless nations who will NOT help themselves. We are spending up to £800 billion on Afgan, Iraq, Libya and Africa what for ? so we can suffer in the uK.

    To hell with them look after the UK.

  • Comment number 21.

    Stephen, you are wrong it is a waste of money. We should be helping the poor, yes many of these Countries have poor governance, but they also suffer from Western Trade policies, which place high tariffs on finished goods and so can only export raw materials. They are also in areas that often have very difficult climatic conditions. We do need to establish a system of partnering those countries which have stable governments to build the infrastructure for long term prosperity and break the cycle of high birth rates to support poor families - often a factor in poverty. A mission to Mars does not do this, if we are to survive in the future we will need to concentrate on fast distance travel not picking up lumps of rusty rock which might have a microbe or two on them; But until then we should be aiming to solve the problems of population growth, poverty and our environmental destruction.

  • Comment number 22.

    test

  • Comment number 23.

    It's funny and ironic but the moon program was cancelled in order to feed the starving, and yet more people are starving today.
    It now transpires that the moon is awash with an element which can provide the human race with free energy, the biggest obstacle of poverty.
    Unfortunately these days no one has the capability to go to the moon, so we will never see this.
    Here is an example from History, 600 years ago the Chinese decided that instead of wasting millions on an exploration program they should instead burn all the ships and concentrate on feeding the starving. 300 years later China had slipped to third world country refd with huge famines, ready for conquering by the rich and powerful west, who had made their fortunes investing heavily in exploration.
    How ironic.

  • Comment number 24.

    Robert Lucien:

    It's a sad fact that the worlds Nuclear Phobia has robbed us of the science fiction dreams of the 50s.

    If the Nuclear engined designs of the 70s had been allowed we would have colonies on the Moon and men on Mars by now.

    The problem was that JFK was terrified it would take the cold war into space, so in the alternative reality we may all have perished in a global Nuclear war.

    Either way, we need to get over our Nuclear fears and start building Nuclear engines. If you ask me that huge waste of time called the ISS should be given a Nuclear engine and sent on it's merry way instead of sitting in orbit studying, errr, being in orbit?!

  • Comment number 25.

    Robert Lucien:

    btw I am fully convinced the Nuclear craft of the 70s did not die, and are in fact alive and well and in existence today.

    Ever wondered why there is so much secrecy around the US military special vehicles projects?

    Could it because they are Nuclear powered and if anyone found out it would be a huge scandal!

 

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