War of the Worlds

ExoMars - Will it happen?

The new NASA budget isn’t looking good. $1b less than usual. That places less than 0.5% (I think actually less than 0.1%) of the federal budget in NASA. That’s despicable! What does it mean for NASA though? Well it means a lot for the branch of science I care most about, planetary science. As a result of this budget NASA have pulled all co-operation with ESA on the ExoMars project. This would see a rover and a satellite launched to Mars between 2016 and 2018. Well, maybe not anymore. What’s important about this mission is that it does so much more than what has been done before. The rover can drill 2m down into the ground, a key milestone, and the satellite would trace methane in the atmosphere. Both would help significantly in the search for life. ESA are trying to get the Russians involved instead now and the ExoMars project will probably be radically re-designed and drawn back. Shame.

Worse though, this budget demolishes a Mars Sample Return mission this decade. NASA have been told that this is their most important goal, for humans won’t be able to visit Mars until this has been done, for a variety of reasons. The next most important after that is a Europa mission (the moon of Jupiter). It is assumed that Europa has a liquid-water ocean below it’s icy surface, an ideal habitat for life. We need to find out what’s there. I haven’t seen any plans though, not even for a little orbiter.

Do NASA have their priorities in a twiddle or not? They’re investing more money in commercial spaceflight, which is good. More money in green aviation (such as blended-wing technology), which is good. More money in developing their new rocket(s), again good. But we’re not doing what we do best, explore! We need to send ambassadors, robot spacecraft, to visit the planets. There’s so much we don’t know and don’t understand. We need to find out.