Europe's science ministers to decide on ExoMars rover
European research ministers will be asked for a little over €400m to put a rover on Mars in 2021. This is the additional sum needed to finish building the ESA's much-delayed ExoMars robot. A technical review has just concluded that the project is running true to its latest schedule, but can only go forward with full funding.
Ministers will decide ExoMars' fate at a council in Lucerne, Switzerland. The British-assembled rover would launch on a Russian rocket in August 2020 and land on the Red Planet eight months later. It is being designed with the ability to drill up to 2m below Mars' dusty terrain to look for evidence of microbial activity.
Dr David Parker is Esa's director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration. He said member-state delegations to the agency had been expressing strong support for the project in the run-up to the Lucerne gathering.
"The rover remains scientifically compelling because there is no other mission planned to go below the surface of Mars which is damaged by radiation and which would destroy any past or present life," he told BBC News.
The six-wheeled robot is the second mission in a two-step venture that Europe is conducting with the Russians. The first phase has just seen a satellite to study Mars' atmosphere go into orbit around the planet, and a disc-shaped probe called Schiaparelli try to make a demonstration landing on its surface.
Schiaparelli crashed but engineers say they learned important lessons that can now be applied to the rover's touch-down bid in four years' time. But to be in such a position, the six-wheeled vehicle will need the nod of ministers in Lucerne.
Ahead of this council, Esa and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, have conducted a thorough review of the project's technical status, to establish that all the mission's hardware can be made ready in time.
It was fears that some elements would be late that saw the mission slip earlier this year from its intended 2018 launch.
The required equipment goes beyond just the rover and a suite of scientific instruments. It includes also a "cruise ship" to carry the vehicle to Mars (this will come from Germany) and the mechanism to land the robot on the surface (a major Russian contribution).