Tag Archives: ExoMars

Russia and ESA in money dispute

A money dispute between Russia and France could threaten the ESA/Russian ExoMars partnership, as well as the Arianespace deal that launches Soyuz rockets from French Guiana.

In what appears to be an attempt to force France’s European neighbors to apply pressure to Paris, Roscosmos hinted that multiple cooperative space efforts between Russian and the European Union, and with the European Space Agency (ESA), could suffer if the payments are not freed. The payments, which are not disputed by Arianespace, have been one of the collateral effects of the battle by former shareholders of Russia’s Yukos oil company. In 2014, these shareholders won an initial award of $50 billion from an international arbitration panel in The Hague, Netherlands, against the Russian government for dismantling the company.

Since then, the shareholders have been trying to collect Russian government assets wherever they find a sympathetic legal environment outside Russia, including France and Belgium. In France, different shareholder representatives sought seizure of the Eutelsat and Arianespace payments. The same dispute has blocked payments to other Russian companies. Paris-based satellite operator Eutelsat owes Russia’s biggest satellite operator, Russian Satellite Communications Co. (RSCC) of Moscow, around $300 million for services related to Eutelsat use of RSCC satellites.

Russia needs cash, which is why they need their partnership with Arianespace, which has brought them a lot of cash over time. Their problem is that the money owed the Yukos oil company shareholders has allowed those shareholders to put liens on any Russian earnings in Europe, which has only increased Russia’s financial bind. If Russia can’t get its hands on its Arianespace earnings, then it really makes no sense for them to continue the partnership. Better to threaten to pull out with the hope that the threat will maybe force payment.

Moreover, Russia might also be realizing that it cannot at present afford to participate in ExoMars and is looking for a way to get out of that commitment. This money dispute gives them that out.

Schiaparelli failure focuses in on altimeter data

The investigation into the landing failure last week of the ExoMars 2016 lander, Schiaparelli, is now focusing on a failure in the spacecraft’s altitude software.

The most likely culprit is a flaw in the craft’s software or a problem in merging the data coming from different sensors, which may have led the craft to believe it was lower in altitude than it really was, says Andrea Accomazzo, ESA’s head of solar and planetary missions. Accomazzo says that this is a hunch; he is reluctant to diagnose the fault before a full post-mortem has been carried out. But if he is right, that is both bad and good news.

European-designed computing, software and sensors are among the elements of the lander that are to be reused on the ExoMars 2020 landing system, which, unlike Schiaparelli, will involve a mixture of European and Russian technology. But software glitches should be easier to fix than a fundamental problem with the landing hardware, which ESA scientists say seems to have passed its test with flying colours. “If we have a serious technological issue, then it’s different, then we have to re-evaluate carefully. But I don’t expect it to be the case,” says Accomazzo.

ExoMars 2016 bearing down on Mars

This article provides a detailed look at Sunday’s arrival of ExoMars 2016 at Mars.

If all goes right the Schiaparelli lander will soft land on the surface while the Trace Gas Orbiter will enter an initial 185 by 60,000 mile orbit, which will slowly be adjusted so that by January it can begin its atmospheric research.

Though the Russian contribution to this mission was only the rocket that sent it to Mars, if the mission succeeds it will be the first time any Mars mission with major Russian participation has succeeded. The failure rate for any Russian effort to go to Mars has been 100%. And it hasn’t been because the missions have been particularly difficult. The majority of their failures occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, even as they were very successfully completing much harder lander missions to Venus.

It has almost as if there is a curse against any Russian attempt to visit the Red Planet. Hopefully, that curse will finally be broken on Sunday.

The landing site for ExoMars’ Schiaparelli lander

This ESA press release provides a nice overview of the landing area that the Schiaparelli lander on ExoMars is targeting.

The landing ellipse, measuring 100 x 15 km, is located close to the equator, in the southern highlands of Mars. The region was chosen based on its relatively flat and smooth characteristics, as indicated in the topography map, in order to satisfy landing safety requirements for Schiaparelli. NASA’s Opportunity rover also landed within this ellipse near Endurance crater in Meridiani Planum, in 2004, and has been exploring the 22 km-wide Endeavour crater for the last five years. Endeavour lies just outside the south-eastern extent of Schiaparelli’s landing ellipse.

Since the primary missions of both Schiaparelli and the ExoMars orbiter, dubbed the Trace Gas Orbiter, is test the technology for getting to and landing on Mars (in preparation for the more challenging 2020 ExoMars mission), I suspect that they chose this very well studied and already visited area to make this test landing less risky.

Side note: ExoMars successfully completed its second and last planned mid-course correction yesterday in preparation for its October arrival at Mars.

Russia and Europe agree to delay next ExoMars mission

After looking at their schedules the Russians and Europeans have agreed that they cannot meet the schedule to launch the second ExoMars mission by the next launch window in 2018, and have agreed to delay the mission until 2020.

This really isn’t a surprise, since Russia was a late replacement of the U.S. when the Obama administration backed out of the project suddenly. They need time to prepare.

ISS astronaut to steer rover on Earth

On to Mars! The British have enlisted the skills of astronaut Tim Peake on ISS to do some test driving of a prototype rover planned for launch on the second ExoMars mission in 2018.

Major Peake will operate Bruno remotely from the International Space Station. His mission will be to drive the robot into a make-shift cave, which will replicate the conditions on Mars, where he will seek out targets marked with an “X”. “There are caves on Mars and craters that cast long shadows,” said Airbus Defence & Space communications director Jeremy Close. “To explore those areas, it’s more efficient to have a human in the loop.”

I must be a bit of a skeptical grump here: Looking at this story I found it packed with more public relations junk than you can imagine. The whole test facility shown is absurd. All show, no reality. Also, their claims about the rover’s route-finding superiority don’t sound right to me.

And the rover itself? This is the prototype of what they plan to launch in 2018? You have got to be kidding? We are less than two years from launch. While I grant this is probably only a model for testing the robot’s route-finding capability, using something held together by packing tape at this late date hardly fills me with confidence about the final product.

Hat tip John Batchelor for sending me the link.

Near disaster for ExoMars

The Russian jinx for going to Mars might not be over yet: New data suggests that the Briz-M upper stage to the Proton rocket exploded shortly after it has propelled ExoMars on its way to Mars and then separated from it.

There appears to be a cloud of debris near the probe, thought to have been caused when the Briz-M stage was to fire its rockets one last time to take it away from ExoMars as well as prevent it from following it to Mars. Instead, it is thought (though not confirmed) that the stage blew up at that moment.

Though so far ExoMars appears to be functioning properly, but they have not yet activated all of its most sensitive instruments. Only when they turn them on in April will we find out if they were damaged in any way by the Briz-M failure.

ExoMars blasts off

The European-Russian Mars orbiter/lander ExoMars was successfully launched on a Proton rocket this morning from Baikonur.

It will still take most of today for the rocket’s Briz-M upper stage to complete several additional engine burns to send the spacecraft on its path to Mars, but the most difficult part of the launch has now passed.

The article does a nice job of summing up Russia’s most recent track record in trying to send spacecraft to Mars, thus illustrating the significance of today’s success:

For Russian scientists, the launch marks the resumption of a cooperative effort with Europe to explore the Solar System, after the failure of the Phobos-Grunt mission in 2011.The launch of the ExoMars-2016 spacecraft will be Proton’s first “interplanetary” assignment in almost two decades. During its previous attempt in November 1996, Proton’s upper stage failed, sending the precious Mars-96 spacecraft to a fiery desmise in the Earth’s atmosphere and effectively stalling Russia’s planetary exploration program for a generation.

Further in the past, during the Soviet era, the Russians tried numerous times to either orbit or land on Mars. Every mission failed. If this mission successfully reaches Mars and lands it will mark the first time the Russians played a major role in a mission to Mars that actually reached its goal and worked.

ExoMars ready for launch

The European ExoMars Mars orbiter and lander mission, set for launch on March 14, is assembled on its Proton rocket and is ready for launch.

This European project was originally going to be in partnership with NASA, but the Obama administration pulled out of the deal. The Russians then offered to come in and provide a rocket for the mission.

Russian lunar mission delayed again

The Russian Luna-Glob has been delayed again, partly due to embargoes imposed by the Ukraine war, and partly due to a lack of money.

The article notes that Russia’s participation in the European ExoMars project has left little resources for this lunar mission, causing delays. It also notes the possibility that the second mission in ExoMars, scheduled for 2018, might be delayed as well. (The first ExoMars mission is scheduled to launch next year.)

All-in-all, this story indicates to me that the Russians continue to have serious underlying financial and management problems throughout their society. Having lost faith in capitalism, after 20 years of not really doing it right, they have returned to a soviet-style big government top-down approach. I doubt it will solve their problems.

ExoMars delayed three months to fix technical problem

The European Space Agency has decided to delay the launch of its ExoMars orbiter from January until March 2016 in order to remove two leaking sensors that might cause problems with the mission’s test lander.

The sensors are not critical to the lander demonstrator, and they are not going to replace them.

Russian umanned space program pushed back three years

Because of the increased workload imposed on Russia when the U.S. suddenly pulled out of the European ExoMars mission, the Russians have imposed a three year delay on their entire program of unmanned science probes.

Although all previously approved projects still remain on the table, the nation’s series of lunar missions face a domino effect of delays. Russia’s first post-Soviet attempt to land on the surface of the Moon was pushed back from 2016 to 2019. Known as Luna-Glob or Luna-25, the unmanned lunar lander was designed to test landing techniques for future lunar missions. On the political front, the successful landing of the Luna-Glob would be a signal to the international scientific community that Russia is back in the planetary exploration business after the 2011 fiasco of the Phobos-Grunt mission.

This report above is a more nuanced analysis than yesterday’s story about the presentation given by the head of the Russia’s Space Research Institute at Saturday’s science conference in Moscow. Today’s story gives the reasoning for the delays, as explained by the Russians themselves, as well as outlines the entire program more thoroughly.

The story describes a string of planned Russian lunar probes, beginning with Luna-Glob. This program was probably approved by the government when the U.S. decided to return to the Moon in 2004 under George Bush. The Russians don’t seem to be able any longer to be self-starters, but instead need the competition from the U.S. to get them jump-started.

Even so, while the U.S. has already flown most of the unmanned probes to the Moon that were proposed in 2004, the Russian program had not yet gotten off the ground.

ExoMars will likely miss 2018 launch date

Because of technical and financial issues the European/Russian ExoMars rover mission is expected to miss its 2018 launch window.

The main reason for the delay would be the ExoMars’ brand-new landing system, which is designed to safely take the rover through a fiery descent in the Martian atmosphere and then softly land it on the surface of the Red Planet.

In addition to its late development start, the landing system has a complicated share of responsibilities between Russia and Europe, which greatly slows down the work. For example, the overall landing system is being developed by NPO Lavochkin in Moscow, while its parachute system will be provided by Europe. Many other aspects of the mission are similarly intertwined.

To further complicate matters, NPO Lavochkin, which traditionally builds all Russian planetary probes, but also some of the highly classified military satellites, is notorious for its Soviet-style secrecy. As a result, it is harder for the two sides to coordinate the work, Europeans sources said. Finally, the translation of documents between Russian and English further delays the work on the project.

The program is also significantly over budget.

Scientists from the joint European/Russian ExoMars rover mission have narrowed their candidate landing sites to four.

Scientists from the joint European/Russian ExoMars rover mission have narrowed their candidate landing sites to four.

Last week, 60 scientists met at ESA’s European Space Astronomy Centre near Madrid to discuss eight potential sites. On 27 March, they cast an informal vote, and four sites emerged as favourites: Mawrth Vallis, Oxia Planum, Hypanis Vallis and Oxia Palus. An expert working group tasked with recommending a final landing site will now consider the proposals, before announcing a formal shortlist of three or four sites in June. Following detailed studies of the shortlisted sites, the panel will make a single recommendation to ESA and Roscosmos in late 2016.

This is maybe the most risky mission to Mars in decades, as the landing design is coming from the Russians, who have not had a successful interplanetary mission since the era of the Soviet Union, and even then had a 100% failure rate for their missions to Mars. (On a more optimistic note, the European Mars Express mission used a Russian rocket to take off, making it the first Mars mission with Russians participation that actually succeeded.)

One of the factors that has made this mission more risky is the fact that the U.S. was once a participant and backed out very late in the game. The Russians are our replacement, and have had to scramble to catch up.

Europe today inked a partnership deal with Russia for its two spacecraft ExoMars mission, planned to launch in 2016 and 2018.

Europe today inked a partnership deal with Russia for its two spacecraft ExoMars mission, planned to launch in 2016 and 2018.

Russia essentially replaces the United States, which backed out of the deal last year when the Obama administration eliminated the funding for most of NASA’s planetary program.

All NASA funding for the European ExoMars mission appears to have been cut by the Obama administration.

All NASA funding for ESA’s unmanned ExoMars mission appears to have been cut by the Obama administration.

A public announcement by Nasa of its withdrawal from the ExoMars programme, as it is known in Europe, will probably come once President Obama’s 2013 Federal Budget Request is submitted. This request, expected in the coming days, will give the US space agency a much clearer view of how much money it has to implement its various projects. “The Americans have indicated that the possibility of them participating is now low – very low. It’s highly unlikely,” said Alvaro Gimenez, Esa’s director of science.

Though this story doesn’t confirm the earlier rumors that the Obama administration was going to eliminate the entire NASA planetary program, it sure lends those rumors further weight. However, the new budget should be released any day now, when we will finally find out.