• Dan is a deputy news editor for Science.

Europe Puts New Rocket, Trip to Mars on Its To-Do List

21 November 2012 2:10 pm

2011 ESA/CNES/Arianespace/Photo Optique Vidéo CSG/S. Martin

Evolution or revolution? ESA made a compromise on the successor of its successful Ariane 5 launcher.

After an intense 48 hours of negotiations in Naples, Italy, the 20 European nations that support the European Space Agency (ESA) have come up with a 5-year budget and a set of priorities that will delight few but did at least avoid major bust-ups. With €10.1 billion ($13 billion) to spend, Europe will be going to Mars, but not to the moon; it will develop a next-generation Ariane 6 launcher, but not quite yet; and it will collaborate with the United States to develop NASA's Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

"It was a very difficult council … with lots of stress and night discussions," ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain said at a press conference after the meeting ended this afternoon. "But by the standards of previous councils it was a big success, in spite of the economic situation."

ESA councils at the ministerial level, like the one that has just ended, occur at roughly 4-year intervals. ESA management puts up a proposed program of missions, which, if fully funded, this time would have cost roughly €12 billion. Most of the missions are optional, so the member states can pledge as much or as little as they wish, although there is many tactics and much brinkmanship in the process. U.K. science minister David Willetts describes it as "like trying to solve simultaneous equations and play poker at the same time."

One program that fell victim to this process before the council even started was a proposed lunar lander. Championed by Germany, the small 800-kilogram craft would have showcased automated landing technology by touching down near the South Pole in 2018. But by last week, it was clear that not enough other members wanted to back the plan, so it was quietly shelved.

The meeting started on a high note by clearing up some unfinished business from the previous ministerial council in 2008. ExoMars, a program to send several craft to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, was originally going to be a collaboration with NASA, but the U.S. agency pulled out of the deal earlier this year. In Naples, the ministers kicked off their discussions by signing off on a new collaboration with the Russian space agency Roscosmos to keep the mission on track.

Apart from the general budget that maintains ESA's headquarters and other facilities, the only program that is mandatory for all members is the science program, which launches highly regarded robotic probes at regular intervals, including, in recent years, the Herschel infrared telescope and the Planck mission to map the cosmic microwave background. Ministers in Naples decided to keep the program's budget fixed at its current level, although it will get a small boost because Romania joined ESA a year ago and Poland did so on Monday. The almost flat budget will dismay space scientists as inflation will eat away at its real value each year.

The issue that kept ministers and their officials awake at night over the 2-day meeting was that of launchers. ESA's highly successful Ariane 5 rocket has dominated the commercial launch market for many years but its future is threatened by competitors, including the Falcon launchers of the SpaceX corporation and Russian rockets. Germany favored an evolutionary approach, continuing the development of an upgraded version known as Ariane 5 ME (for "midlife evolution") with a new upper stage that can be relit to position multiple satellites. France wanted a more radical redesign, Ariane 6, which would reduce the cost per launch to keep it competitive. A compromise was hammered out in the early hours of this morning: Work on Ariane 5 ME will continue for 2 years while the ESA directorate investigates Ariane 6 more thoroughly and looks for commonalities between the two that could reduce development costs. A decision on Ariane 6 will be made in 2014.

ESA's only venture in human spaceflight is its involvement in the International Space Station (ISS). Ministers agreed to cover Europe's share of ISS's running costs up to 2020 including, as an in-kind contribution, developing a component for NASA's planned Orion capsule, which may in the future carry a four-person crew to missions as far as the moon or an asteroid. This "service module" would build on technology developed by ESA for its automated transfer vehicles, which are used to supply the ISS. "This is the first time ESA has contributed to a crew transport vehicle," Dordain said. "For me that is a breakthrough."