Where now for Mars exploration?

Charles Bolden Bolden wants Mars robotic exploration to fit better with human exploration goals

It's the planetary scientists who probably have the glummest faces a day after President Obama announced his 2013 budget request for Nasa.

Although the agency gets a flat budget overall ($17.7bn), there are ongoing and expensive commitments in certain portions of the financial pie - such as to the SLS "monster rocket" and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) - and this puts a squeeze on other areas.

Planetary science loses 20% of its current $1.5bn budget, with Mars exploration taking the single biggest hit, down from $587m this year to $360m next year - a 39% reduction.

The chief casualty, as I predicted last week, is the Americans' joint missions to the Red Planet with Europe in 2016 and 2018.

ExoMars, as we call it on this side of the pond, envisages a satellite to study the Martian atmosphere, followed by a large robotic rover to drill beneath the surface and cache rocks for later return to Earth. The Americans have severed their involvement.

It means that in the space of 12 months, Nasa has now pulled the plug on five major missions it was planning with Europe:

  • Lisa gravitational wave observatory
  • International X-Ray Observatory
  • Europa-Jupiter System Mission
  • and now ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter in 2016
  • and ExoMars rover in 2018

If you include the uncertainty from the summer campaign by some politicians on Capitol Hill to have the JWST terminated - a project that represents a half-billion-euro investment for Europe - you will forgive many Europeans for thinking that the US is a pretty unreliable partner right now.

Nasa administrator Charles Bolden said it was problematic to take part in the ExoMars project because it was billed as a "flagship mission".

"It was another multi-billion-dollar mission," he explained when he revealed details of the 2013 budget request.

"We have Mars Science Laboratory [the Curiosity rover] on its way - a flagship. We have James Webb Space Telescope in work - a flagship.

"Flagships are essential for this nation. Anybody in the scientific community will tell you that anybody who wants to lead the world in scientific exploration and discovery has to do flagships every once in a while. We just could not do another flagship right now. It was not in the cards with the budget, given these very difficult fiscal times."

ExoMars artist's impression European member states have invested more than 200 million euros in ExoMars thus far

ExoMars is now in intensive care. The European Space Agency (Esa) is talking to the Russians about the prospect of them picking up many of the responsibilities on the two missions dropped by Nasa.

They're understood to be very keen. But it's not a perfect substitution and there will inevitably be additional costs that would break what Esa member states have said is a cap on expenditure for ExoMars - a billion euros and not one cent more.

A number of countries, the UK included, have restated that position in the past few days.

The next few weeks will be critical, as Esa officials try to pull together a technical, political and financial consensus to move forward.

If they cannot achieve that consensus, then an Esa council meeting in March will probably be the moment that ExoMars finally flat-lines.

JWST The $8.8bn projected total cost of JWST puts a big squeeze on other activities

It's hard to imagine this uncertainty can be allowed to drag on. And a further delay (there have been plenty already) in the launch schedule of the missions would simply not be tolerated, and would only add to the overall cost.

If it does all unravel, what might emerge from the wreckage?

Charles Bolden and his new science chief, "Hubble repairman" John Grunsfeld, think they have a workable scenario.

They want future efforts at the Red Planet to be a better fit with human spaceflight ambitions. That is, future robotic ventures at Mars must do stuff which feeds into an eventual manned mission that Barack Obama has said should be a goal for the 2030s.

To that end, preliminary discussions have started on a Nasa-led Mars mission in 2018 that would probably cost $1bn rather than the $1.5bn Nasa had anticipated spending on ExoMars.

Science chief Grunsfeld would get money from the human spaceflight and space technology directorates to help pay for it.

He refuses to be specific about what this mission might entail, but asks us to look at the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that was sent to the Moon to retrieve information helpful to future astronaut ventures.

MSL The Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity rover) could be the last surface mission for a while

From this, I read tasks such as landing site selection and identifying resources on the planet's surface that could be used by human explorers.

Grunsfeld told reporters: "If you ask any planetary scientist, 'what would you like to do at Mars?', they give you their list. And then say, 'what if you could go yourself to Mars; what would you do, how would you do it?', and they come up with another list.

"And then you look at the overlap of that list, and you find out, in fact, that it is mostly overlapped.

"When we send geologists, planetary scientists, astrobiologists to Mars, they're going to want to do the same kinds of things that one would want to do by sending robotic spacecraft. It's just a question of 'what can we do and when can we do it?'."

Europe has already been asked if it would be interested in participating in this effort. Early discussions were said by Grunsfeld to have gone "very well". But this is no ExoMars, and it would represent scant return for the more than 200m euros already invested by Esa member states in that project.

I doubt very much whether Esa delegations would buy into such a venture - not after what has just happened in the past 24 hours.

I sense some big arguments - and a fair amount of recrimination - could be about to follow.

Jonathan Amos, Science correspondent Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    What a shame that funding for scientific research is being cut so deeply across so many countries and in so many branches of study.

    It has the potential to reduce the vast number of important international discoveries to a trickle for decades to come.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    One small decision for bankers/ financers/ governments, one giant black day for mankind

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I hope you are right Jonathon, I hope there will be lots of noisy arguments and many recriminations to follow. This current administration seems to have it in for NASA beyond just the economic situation and what I find truly sad is that the one candidate wanting to increase funding is being publicly ridiculed for it.

    It's time maybe to cut NASA out of the loop and leap forward without them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Shocked, disappointed - Yes, but surprised - No !
    It is difficult not to point the finger, but we have seen this coming for a while now.
    You cannot get a quart out of a pint pot, which was all that was available when ESA decided to change from a single launch to two ExoMars launches.
    We could have had a European Rover on its way to Mars now if we had stuck to our original plans in 2005.


  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I use to think that a manned mission to Mars was the way to go but not so much lately... very pricy, very dangerous. With the exo projects I personally got very excited because we saw how well the current rovers have performed. It all seems like a giant American political football, punt before you finish what you started.
    I got more but i hate to bore people!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Great. The future of humanity dictated by short-term thinking and balance sheets. Fermi's Paradox has a simple solution: the galaxy is full of capitalists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    It is a pity that space exploration has largely stalled in the past decade.

    If only the space sector would blossom in the private sector we would have an unending supply of jobs/investment opportunities.

    It would be fantastic for the economy and fantastic for progress.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Good thing too, we need to fix the damage that we have done to the environment here before we spread the plague species that is humanity among the stars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    When you look at how much the US spends on Defense the $17b dollars is paltry. Its a shame that NASSA had to suffer!

    Will this open the doors to minor but up and coming players such as China, India, or Japan? To be fair I would have more faith in them than I would in Russia who have fad a couple of recent high profile failures recently..

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    We had a chance to all go some where but now it seems our fearless leader is trying to turn this country in to a welfare state. We never should have driven the USSR out of bussiness. Now we don't have anything to point to other than all of Europe. Sadly most Americans are victims of our union powered public school system. As a child I had such hope and so did a lot of the science fiction writers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    At first I took this to be pretty negative but in the long term it may be the right choice.
    The SLS is a primary evolutionary step in the progress towards a manned Mars mission, for me its still far to small but it is progress in the right direction. (Increasing the size of launcher actually reduces the overall final mission costs and increases capability.)

    Then there's the James Web telescope...

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Taking on a partner may reduce the cost, but it increases the risk.

    Europe should have gone alone with the Aurora programme as it originally intended.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    What a shame, although thankfully there is still some good science on the way, the European projects will go ahead and the Webb Telescope is still an awesome project.
    If the US wants to focus on putting people back on the moon and some other projects go by the wayside I still think it is good in the longer term.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    "Although the agency gets a flat budget overall ($17.7bn)"

    Amos, if you factor in inlation the budget is shrinking.

    Yes, we may boast about the latest Mars lander and the Webb Telescope (hopefully launched in 2014) but those projects were initiated and funded many years ago before our (US) current president decided to castrate NASA and lay of thousands of its irreplaceable human assets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Amos: "a billion euros and not one cent more. "

    I recall the same was said about Airbus-380 behemot, A-350 and A400M projects, not to mention redundant Galileo scheme.

    And what? EU taxpayers were forced to pick up the tab in the end anyway, whether they liked it or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    A bitter lesson for Europe. Better to go with a project you know can be delivered than link up with a partner who's ambitions are way beyond its purse. Much ESA money has been wasted on this and it remains to be seen if they can put together a mission worth doing. NASA is on dead end with the SLS as it will never get the funding to fly the missions this booster is meant for, pure politics!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    This president hates Texas, The oil industry, the space industry, & anything that could bring America back from the brink of being made a laughing stock of the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I'm really looking forward to Curiosity but I don't see the point in planning further missions until we see what it comes up with.

    As for scraping under ice to look for bacteria, shouldn't that capability be developed on the Moon first, now we know water is there? A sample-and-return would be much cheaper and easier. The technology could be re-used on Mars once the money is there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Dear ESA/EU/Rest of World,
    NEVER EVER trust the USA to do any 'scientific endeavour's'!
    Lesson learnt? USA can spent Trillions on Military but Billions on Science - too expensive. When the world realises it and leaves the USA to wallow in their ever expanding waist lines. The sooner the rest of the world can progress the Human Kind in the Universe!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    #19 For goodness sake Michael, were you not around during the Voyager missions?

    I don't normally like to post links but if you think NASA are not doing enough planetary science how do you explain this lot?



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