France, Europe's most ambitious space-faring nation, announced a major new initiative this week outside the scope of the European Space Agency (ESA): a collaboration with NASA on the U.S. agency's Mars Sample Return mission. Addressing the French Senate on 30 November, science minister Claude Allègre said that CNES, France's space agency, would contribute $450 million--53% of its 1998 contribution to ESA--to the $2.5 billion project.
NASA and CNES have collaborated directly on two Earth observation missions, Topex-Posseidon and Jason. But Monday's announcement took CNES staff by surprise, says Francis Rocard, who heads the agency's Solar System Program. "We weren't informed about this," he says. NASA had been looking for partners to share the cost of the mission and provide a launcher and had approached CNES. Allègre, a geophysicist, has done research on Moon samples--a background that may explain his enthusiasm for the Mars project, points out the Paris newspaper Le Monde.
The French contribution to the Sample Return mission comprises three elements: A European-built Ariane 5 launcher in 2005 will loft a French Mars Orbiter, which will reach the red planet in 2006. Once in orbit, it will use radar to locate a container of samples collected by robot rovers deposited on the surface in 2003 by an earlier NASA mission. It will then land, scoop up the container, and take off again. Before heading for home, the Orbiter will also deposit four "Netlanders," small probes that will form a network of seismic and weather stations. By monitoring the seismic activity on Mars, they will tell us more about the planet's inner structure, says Rocard.
Although the lofty ambitions of CNES and the more modest goals of other ESA members has led to friction in the past, Marcello Coradini, ESA's head of Solar System Exploration, plays down the significance of France striking out on its own. He says that CNES, ESA, and NASA sustain thriving collaborations, and points out that ESA has its own Mars project, Mars Express, to be launched in 2003. "I don't see any major problem in France collaborating directly with NASA in a way which is absolutely coherent with ESA programs," says Coradini.