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European Mars mission delayed

Mission might be getting bigger

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

The European Space Agency (ESA) has elected to delay the launch of its next Mars mission, ExoMars, by two years.

The decision, taken to allow more time to test key technologies, gives ESA scientists extra time to lobby for an expansion of the mission, which could almost double its cost.

ExoMars is Europe's first planned rover mission to Mars. Originally slated to launch in 2011, the mission will now blast off in 2013.

The new launch date will allow ESA to spend more time refining technologies like airbags, supersonic parachutes, descent control, and stability systems, the BBC reports. The rover's drive systems and navigation controls are also likely to come under further scrutiny.

The delay also gives mission planners time to expand the scope of the mission, something scientists have been pushing for since the mission was first mooted. Currently, the launch capacity of the Soyuz-Fregat rocket means just eight kilos of payload have been allocated to scientific instruments. Scientists have always argued that for the mission to do anything groundbreaking closer to 13 or 15 kilos of equipment should be sent.

This would mean a more powerful rocket is needed and that will cost money. The lander is scheduled to launch on a Russian Soyuz-Fregat rocket from the Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. An upgraded mission would have to be launched from French Guinea with the heavy-lifter Ariane-5.

This, combined with the additional equipment, will push the price tag from an estimated €500m to around €800m. In turn, this will mean petitioning member states for more cash.

"From the point of view of a scientist or an engineer, a mission with an Ariane-5 makes much more sense," Marcello Coradini, coordinator for Solar System missions in ESA's science directorate, told the BBC. "However, that implies political negotiations over the budget, in which the results are not guaranteed."

There are plenty of arguments in favour of expanding the mission. The only downside is finding the extra cash.

For instance, while planners are bargaining on using NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to relay signals to and from Earth, the Ariane rocket would make it possible to send a second, orbiting craft with the lander. This would make communications with the rover much more certain, since ESA can't guarantee NASA will still be operating the MRO by the time ExoMars lands.

Despite the planned delay to the launch, ExoMars won't arrive at its destination much later, thanks to the alignment of the planets.

A launch in mid 2011 would see ExoMars spending two years in a heliocentric orbit, arriving at Mars in June 2013. Launching in December 2013, the craft can take a much more direct route, arriving at the red planet under a year later.

This shorter journey, ESA notes, would mean the payload would be exposed to fewer charged particles en route, minimising the chance of damage to the delicate instruments on board. ®

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