On Thursday, the Financial Times (UK) reported that on Dec. 5-6, in Berlin, the European Space Agency is poised to consider whether "it is time for Europe to forge its own path among the planets." ...
EUROPE'S BID FOR THE GREAT BEYOND
By Daniel Clery
** Next month, when ministers from the 15 member states in the European Space Agency meet in Berlin to discuss its next five-year chunk of funding, they will face an important question: is it time for Europe to forge its own path among the planets? **
Financial Times (UK)
November 24, 2005
For the past four years, ESA has been quietly laying the groundwork for a program, Aurora, that could take European astronauts to the moon and Mars. Now it is time to see if politicians have the stomach for it.
Aurora, if approved, will be small by NASA's standards. In its first decade, it will consist principally of a robotic mission, known as ExoMars, and technology development for a craft to return a sample of Martian soil to earth and for human exploration. ESA next month will request a budget in the region of 700m-800m euros ($825m-$943m) for Aurora over the next five years.
Although the program is starting modestly, it is symbolic of the agency's ambitions and Europe's desire to assert its independence in space. "Europe now has greater confidence and capability in planetary exploration," says astrophysicist Ken Pounds of the University of Leicester, a former chief executive of the U.K.'s Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.
Every five years or so, ESA must embark on a bout of international diplomacy and persuade 15 governments to agree on its funding, culminating in a ministerial-level meeting. This year it is in Berlin on December 5-6.
Most ESA programs are not mandatory for all members. For optional programs such as Aurora, each state can contribute as much or as little as it likes and receive funding for its researchers or industry contracts in proportion to its contribution. ESA officials have been busy selling the Aurora concept so that it starts with a bang.
"We have been working closely with most of the delegations with an interest in ExoMars," says Piero Messina of the exploration program at ESA headquarters in Paris. "We hope this will pay off." The baseline version of ExoMars will have two parts -- a rover that will drill into rocks and burrow beneath the surface in search of samples, which can then be analyzed on board for signs of life, and a static base station with environmental and geophysics instruments.
ExoMars will also be a testbed for technologies essential to future missions, including hardware for descent and landing, power supply, and communications. "We sense that the interest in ExoMars is such that it may attract more money than the baseline," Mr. Messina says.
The potential sticking point in next month's talks is the long-term goal of sending human beings to explore the solar system. Although ESA has a corps of astronauts who travel as guests on the NASA shuttle or the Russian Soyuz capsule, not all member states support the idea of human space flight. The U.K. has a decades-long policy of not participating in programs involving astronauts because of the huge investment required -- it can cost 10 or more times as much to send a human on a space mission as a robot. Sources say Germany, too, may be reluctant to join Aurora if it emphasizes human exploration.
Earlier this year, the U.K. Royal Astronomical Society asked a panel of three prominent scientists, including Prof. Pounds, to investigate the case for human exploration of the solar system. At first, they were sceptical, having seen the billions squandered on the international space station produce little scientific return. But after nine months of deliberation they were convinced that the scientific questions are important enough and, for the foreseeable future, robots just aren't up to the job. The U.K., they concluded, should abandon its no-astronauts policy. "Do we want to be in there, or standing by watching?" asks Prof. Pounds.
Nevertheless, ESA foresaw that the human issue would continue to be a problem and it has toned down those parts of the Aurora proposal, for the early years at least.
Another potential area of uncertainty is whether Aurora will require collaboration with other space agencies. ExoMars is "clearly an ESA mission," says Mr. Messina. The sample return mission that is to follow it "was always conceived as an international endeavour, but [whether] partners will be ready or willing is uncertain," he explains. U.S. plans are still in flux, Mr. Messina says. But while ESA officials may talk big, realistically Europe is never going to send astronauts to Mars on its own. "Aurora is about enhancing our knowledge of Mars, getting technology ready, keeping an eye on the plans of other nations and identifying the building blocks that ESA can contribute," Mr. Messina says.
While ESA is keeping an eye on NASA to set the pace for a visit to Mars, it is looking to the east in search of a vehicle to get astronauts into space. Earlier this year the Russian space agency asked ESA to team up in developing Clipper, a mini-shuttle that Russia has been working on since 2000 as a replacement for the venerable Soyuz capsule. In June the two agencies signed an agreement to carry out two years of joint studies, assuming that ESA members agree to the 50m-euro price tag at the Berlin meeting.
If Clipper gets the go-ahead, it could cost as much as 3bn euros to build and would carry its first astronauts into space in about 2012. "It is an exploration vehicle. It could go to the moon, provided with appropriate propulsion," says Manuel Valls of Esa's human space flight directorate. December's meeting will reveal whether European politicians share ESA's enthusiasm for sending their citizens into the final frontier. Buying into the Aurora program would be the downpayment.
CONTRACTORS COMPETE FOR CASH
Aurora, the European Space Agency's program to explore the moon and Mars, will be a modest affair to start with. ESA is asking for up to 800m euros ($943m) for the first five years of the program from its 15 member states in Berlin next month. Of that, 700m euros will be spent on a single mission, called ExoMars.
Competition for that money will be fierce, since Europe's space industry is at present in a downturn, after a buoyant market for satellites and launches in the 1990s. Most activity in this area takes place in the big four European Union nations -- France, Germany, Italy, and the UK. The market, too, is dominated by four big players -- Alcatel, EADS, Finmeccanica, and Snecma -- although there are some 200 small and medium-sized companies across Europe bidding for space business. Altogether, 40,000 people are employed directly by the space industry, and 250,000 indirectly.
Bidding to ESA for a big contract such as ExoMars is, however, not a level playing field. The agency exercises a policy of juste retour, whereby industry in each ESA member state wins contracts in proportion to the funding their government provides to the program.
Italy is expected to be the largest contributor to Aurora in Berlin, so, unless another country comes up with a surprise bid, Alcatel Alenia Space will be the prime contractor on ExoMars, leading an array of subcontractors in all those countries that chipped in.
Aurora is not the only item on the agenda in Berlin. ESA also aims to launch its five-year Global Monitoring for Environment and Security program. This 630m-euro program, conducted in collaboration with the EU, will use existing earth observation satellites and launch as many as seven new ones to provide European decision-makers with information on the environment, risk assessment, and natural resources.
ESA is also gearing up to begin launching its Galileo satellites, a constellation that will provide a more commercially oriented version of the Pentagon's global positioning system. Reflecting the fact that it is not always the big conglomerates that get all the pie, the first Galileo test satellite, Giove-A -- due for launch before the end of the year -- was built by Surrey Satellite Technology, a 200-strong company spun off from the University of Surrey in Guildford, in the south of England.
A second test satellite is under construction at EADS Astrium, which has a long pedigree in building ESA science missions, including Mars Express, now orbiting the red planet, and its ill-fated probe, Beagle 2. The full Galileo fleet will have 30 craft orbiting the earth and should be in place by the end of the decade.
Europe's space industry will be hoping that politicians like the sound of Aurora. If the decision is made, some time next decade, to send astronauts to the moon and Mars, it will be boom time for space contractors, as space travel is incredibly costly.
It has already cost $100bn to build the international space station, and that is only 220 miles above our heads.