As the United States retreats from its space efforts, its partner in the latest project has been forced to appeal to Moscow for help.
The European Space Agency has formally asked Russia if it would like to take part in the exploration of Mars, lest the withdrawal of the United States as a European partner leave the ambitious project in limbo.
As currently conceived there are to be two Martian launches — one in 2016, a second in 2018 — called jointly “ExoMars.” Budget-battling NASA, however, has informed its European partners it isn’t certain it can provide its share of the 2016 project and may or may not be able to come up with an Atlas 5 rocket to propel the 2018 project either. The ESA director general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, has told Space News, “At this point I am becoming a Doubting Thomas.” So doubting that Dordain has formally invited Moscow to join the effort as a full-fledged partner. Dordain says he hopes Russia may decide to provide a Proton rocket to power the 2016 launch.
Dordain hopes for an answer from Moscow by late January. If it’s yes, then the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, would be eligible to participate in other aspects of the program.
If the full two-launch program can’t be worked out, then some of the other participants, and there are 19 in total, may opt not to take part.
In short, one of the most ambitious exploration programs in space history is now in the hands of Moscow, thanks to the budget crisis nagging NASA.