U.S., EU Agree on Joint Mars Flight -- Unclear Who Will Pay     Print Email

After a decade in declining cooperation on space research, the EU and the U.S. have agreed to a breakthrough joint venture. In a letter of intent released in November, the two powers announced an agreement to design unmanned spacecraft for exploration of the surface of Mars. The stakes are high in the light of the prestige associated with the countries that fund scientific advances in space, but progress is contingent on the funding required to carry out the research. So far, the financial details are unclear.

The letter follows a global summit on space held in Prague in October, which included representatives from Russia, Japan, India and China.  The EU and the U.S. appear to remain as leaders (and now partners) in world space research. The German Marshall Fund lauds the development in this article.

In keeping with the objective of a biannual launch schedule, the letter described a Europe-led orbiter slated for 2016, a surface rover mission in 2018, as well as a network of unmanned “landers” -- meant to sample geophysics and the environment on the surface of Mars -- as being “under consideration” for 2020.

The approach of joint research by the EU and U.S. should relieve some of the budget strain on each of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA). In contrast to the lavish spending on the cold war space race, funding has shrunk for new ventures in exploring other planets in the galaxy. For more on the recent history of EU space initiatives, see this previous European Affairs article.

Budget woes also pose problems for climate-change research. Satellite programs have made great strides in studies on global water levels. One such initiative, the Jason program, is a satellite series designed and launched by scientists from the U.S, and France, whose findings indicate that, due to global warming, ocean levels rise an average of 3mm per year.

Development of Jason and other climate-related satellite projects must be continued over time, argues Jonathan Amos, a British space specialist. The Jason project has been running for 17 years now, and its data provides some of the only satellite-based information on Earth’s climate change. Few studies like Jason have been conducted for so long, and continued analysis is vital to understanding environmental changes over extended periods of time. “It is [the] quality of continuity that enables scientists to discern real trends [on climate change],” Amos explained in his BBC space blog earlier this month. But, he warns, “the issue, as ever, is who is going to pay for it.” So far two Jason satellites are launched and currently in orbit, Jason-1 and Jason-2. Amos signals, though, that to continue the data-collecting mission of Jason-2, “preparation for its successor must begin soon if the space baton is not to be dropped.”

Questions remain as to which European countries would commit funding if the London decision is negative, and how much. Member states of the European Space Agency (ESA) have pledged 850 million euros for their part in the Mars venture, though some observers estimate that 1 billion euros is necessary.

Concerns over finances and other aspects of the EU-U.S. Mars initiative will be discussed at an ESA meeting scheduled for mid-December.

Will Fleeson