Europe presses ahead with Mars rover
Europe will push ahead with its plan to put a UK-assembled robotic rover on the surface of Mars in 2021. Research ministers meeting Switzerland have agreed to stump up the outstanding €436m euros needed to complete the project. The mission is late and is costing far more than originally envisaged, prompting fears that ESA might abandon it.
But the ministers have emphatically reaffirmed their commitment to it. They have also said that European participation in the International Space Station should run until at least 2024, bringing Esa into line with its partners on the orbiting laboratory - the US, Russia, Japan and Canada.
This will open new opportunities for European astronauts to visit the station, and it was announced here that Italian Luca Parmitano has been proposed to take up a tour in 2019. The Ministerial Council here in Lucerne was convened to set the policies, programmes and funding for Esa over the next three to five years.
Officials at the agency had put a menu of activities before member state delegations valued at €11bn (£9.5bn; $12bn), covering all manner of activities ranging from rockets and Earth observation to big data management and satellite navigation.
At the end of one and a half days of deliberations, the 22 governments agreed to fund €10.3bn. The rover is the second part in a two-step programme known as ExoMars, which is being run jointly with the Russians to explore the possibility of life on the Red Planet.
The first part has just seen a satellite arrive at Mars to investigate trace gases in the atmosphere that may be coming from microbes somewhere on the world. In the second phase, a robotic rover would follow up these studies by drilling below Mars' dusty surface to try to detect the organisms directly.
But repeated delays in the vehicle's development have increased costs and undermined confidence in the whole endeavour.
Ministers were asked here to reassert their faith in the mission and close the sizeable financial shortfall that has built up.
This they did, committing €339m to cover industry costs on the rover and its associated hardware (Esa is finding another €97m internally).
Italy and the UK, which are the lead nations on ExoMars, offered the most - €171m and €82m respectively.
The director general of Esa, Jan Woerner, said ExoMars now had the money and the schedule to be sure of making it to the launch pad in 2020.