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Thursday, 16 June 2016
European Space Agency still backing Mars rover project
Member states of the European Space Agency have reaffirmed their commitment to launch a rover to Mars in 2020.
Meeting in Paris, delegations agreed to put the project, which has experienced serial delays, on to a fresh schedule.
They also injected an immediate extra sum of €77m (£59m), which will keep the ExoMars robot in development while a full and final solution to its financial problems is sought.
The aim is to have all matters resolved for a meeting of ministers in December.
Dr David Parker is the agency's director of human spaceflight and robotic exploration.
He told BBC News: "The challenges were set out to member states, and in the council meeting [on Wednesday] they were asked the fundamental questions: how important is this project; do you want to continue? And the very, very clear message came back that this remains a high priority for scientific and technological reasons."
ExoMars is actually a two-part programme that is being implemented jointly with the Russians.
The first phase is a satellite to study the Red Planet's atmosphere, and this was launched successfully in March.
But the second phase - a rover that can drill 2m into the surface of Mars to search for signs of life - has had a roller-coaster of a ride since it was first approved as a concept back in 2005.
Planned launch dates have repeatedly been missed, with yet another slip, from 2018 to 2020, announced in May.
The inability of teams to meet hardware delivery deadlines was cited as the reason for this latest delay.
Delegations to Wednesday's council meeting at Esa HQ were briefed on the details and the actions that would make the new target date of 2020 achievable.
"The first critical step has been to re-establish a realistic technical schedule and contingency, both on the European side and with Russian colleagues at Roscosmos (Russian space agency) and their contractor Lavochkin. That's very good news," explained Dr Parker.
But, equally, the continuing financial uncertainty facing the project had to be brought to a close, he added.
To this end, the "big four" in Esa - France, Germany, Italy and the UK - have agreed to the immediate injection of €77m.
Italy (€34m) and the UK (€19m) committed the most as their industries (Thales Alenia in Turin and Airbus in Stevenage) are the prime contractors.
This quick cash ensures development work taking place in labs and factories can continue uninterrupted.
The more vexing issue is the overall shortfall in the ExoMars programme budget.
Dr Parker declined to specify the exact scale of this money gap because he said there were still some sensitivities around the negotiation of a final manufacturing price with industry.
What is known is that the full end price of ExoMars - for both the satellite and rover - is going to be around €1.56bn. And that is a good deal higher than the €1.25bn member states were expecting to have to pay back in 2012.
"There will now be a set of steps to demonstrate progress on the rover mission, and we will propose to member states thereafter a complete financial package to finish the job for when they meet in Lucerne (at the Council of Ministers) in December. These will be subscriptions within the exploration programme," said Dr Parker.
"In the meantime, it's full speed ahead on the technical side and I have to say, from what I've seen, the teams are working very hard; they're very dedicated. All the trips they make back and forth to Russia and to speak with their suppliers - it's an impressive machine