An artist’s impression of the ExoMars 2016 mission, a collaboration between the European and Russian space agencies, shows the lander, Schiaparelli, separating from the orbiter.
The mission blasted off from Kazakhstan last week and the spacecraft is expected to arrive in October. It will study dust storms and gases like methane, a hot topic because it can be created in a process requiring heat and liquid water.
While countries in Europe have been slashing budgets, one area has not just escaped the ax but chalked up a stellar jump: space exploration.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has seen its budget expand 75 percent since 2008, unscathed by the region’s sovereign debt crisis.
The project, which draws contributions from individual member nations, has become a rare force of unity in a region that’s struggling with an unprecedented refugee crisis, a potential British exit from the European Union and an unresolved conflict between Ukraine and Russia.
“There is a political meaning and purpose to this mission: working together beyond national borders, beyond crises on Earth,” said Jan Woerner, the head of ESA and a German engineer who formerly headed his country’s space agency. “We use a Russian launcher, with American contribution and it’s a European mission.”
From a space center in Kazakhstan, ESA is sending into deep space an orbiter tasked with gathering critical scientific data. Attached is a spacecraft that will head to the Martian surface to test the ability of Europeans to safely land on the planet. Monday’s liftoff is the first of two launches that will see a rover on Mars by 2020, joining NASA’s Curiosity, which is already there.
The orbiter has several scientific tasks: one is to sniff out any trace of methane, the gas that could be a signpost of life; another is to map out precisely when the rover can try to land, starting in 2018. While an earlier spacecraft launched during ESA’s mission in 2003 called Mars Express is still mapping, photographing and making useful scientific measurements, the lander sent with it was never able to transmit data to ESA.
The budget of ESA, an agency backed by 22 European nations, has risen 75 percent since 2008 to $5.8 billion (though that’s less than a third of NASA’s $19 billion). The support shows that Europe wants to be a key actor in the arena.
ESA also has made space exploration missions like the ExoMars more palatable by providing returns on investment. For each member, 1 euro invested in ESA generates between 5 and 7 euros in collateral investments in industry and jobs, the agency said.