Despite refugees, Europe is united on Mars exploration


While countries in Europe have been slashing budgets, one area has not just escaped the ax but chalked up a stellar jump: space exploration.

The European Space Agency, which Monday was to launch its €1.3 billion ($1.45 billion) ExoMars mission to outrace the U.S. in the search for evidence of life on the red planet, has seen its budget expand 75 percent since 2008, unscathed by the region’s sovereign debt crisis.

The project, which draws contributions from individual member nations, has become a rare force of unity in a region that is struggling with an unprecedented refugee crisis, a potential British exit from the European Union and an unresolved conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

“There is a political meaning and purpose to this mission: working together beyond national borders, beyond crises on Earth,” Jan Woerner, the head of ESA and a German engineer who formerly headed his country’s space agency, said in an interview. “We use a Russian launcher, with American contribution and it’s a European mission. We’re over earthly crises with this space mission.”

From the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan, ESA is sending into deep space an orbiter tasked with gathering critical scientific data. Attached is a spacecraft that will head to the rocky and cold Martian surface to test the ability of Europeans to safely land on the planet.

Monday’s liftoff is the first of two launches that will see a rover on Mars by 2020, joining its NASA counterpart, Curiosity, which is already there.

The orbiter has several scientific tasks: one is to sniff out any trace of methane, the gas that could be a signpost of life; another is to map out precisely when the rover can try to land, starting in 2018.

While an earlier spacecraft launched during ESA’s mission in 2003 called Mars Express is still mapping, photographing and making useful scientific measurements, the lander sent with it was never able to transmit data to ESA and has been written off as lost.

The budget of ESA, a space agency backed by 22 European nations, has risen 75 percent since 2008 to €5.3 billion ($5.8 billion). The unstinting support from contributors, including the U.K., Italy, Germany and France, shows that Europe wants to be a key actor in an arena dominated by historical players such as the U.S., Russia and Japan, and one that’s drawing newcomers like China and India.

“We know that the Americans know how to do it; what we want in Europe is to be capable of doing it too,” Jorge Vago, ESA’s project scientist told Geneva-based newspaper Le Temps. “To ride the future of space conquest, we need certain capabilities. If not, we’ll always be left painting the rocket rather than providing the engine.”

While NASA’s Curiosity can dig just 7 cm into Mars’s surface, the European mission’s robot will be able to reach depths of two meters, Vago said.

“That’s an enormous difference for science,” he said. “When we talk about subterranean exploration, Europe will have an advantage.”

ESA’s 2016 budget is less than a third of NASA’s $19 billion. The U.S. agency has struggled to secure new funding, with Congress or the White House challenging the agency’s projects. NASA’s budget has risen 8.1 percent since 2008, according to Bloomberg calculations.

ESA has made space exploration missions like the ExoMars more palatable by providing returns on investment. For each member, €1 invested in ESA generates between €5 and €7 in collateral investments in industry and jobs, the agency says. That’s partly because its policy stipulates that each contributor get a “fair return” and that “ESA procurement increase the competitiveness of European industry on the international market,” the agency says.

Italy, the biggest contributor to ExoMars with €442 million ($492 million) invested in the project, or 34 percent of the total, is playing the key role of leading the test-lander project, dubbed Schiaparelli. Being able to successfully land something on Mars or any other planet is critical for the agency to gain independence. Thales Alenia Space Italia is in charge of the lander.

Space exploration is risky business — ESA has no insurance for its Mars mission — and being on time is key. Earth and Mars are in the right alignment allowing a journey only for a few weeks every 26 months. Any technical uncertainty could postpone the mission.

Getting ready for the 2018 part of the ExoMars mission will be critical. In the second part, ESA will send a rover, partly built by Airbus Defense and Space, that will drill two meters beneath the surface to search for traces of water and life. At that depth, it may find elements protected from solar and other space radiations that bombard Mars.

Currently, NASA’s Mars plans are the biggest. It landed its Curiosity rover in a crater there in 2012 and has been delivering major discoveries, including possible traces of water on the planet. The U.S. will send a new module to the planet in 2018 called InSight that will measure seismic movements, and also the Mars 2020 projects, with a new super-equipped rover.

Woerner plays down the race, even saying “being second is also OK.” “The time of power games is over — our globe deserves cooperation beyond national vanity and beauty contests,” he said.

That’s particularly true for manned missions to Mars. Analysts estimate that the tab could run anywhere from $100 billion to $1 trillion or more. For ESA’s chief, the best way to get humans on Mars will be to use the moon as a base. A settlement could be built, partly with 3-D printers, to help humans adapt and as a warehouse. Woerner is reaching out to his partners in countries from China to the U.S. to discuss the project.

“Our missions are fundamental research, but it’s not at loss,” he said. “The return on investment for industries, for people’s inspiration, is greater than people know.”