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Russia to partner with Europe on missions to Mars

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Mar 18, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Russia is stepping in to help save Europe's ExoMars missions to the Red Planet after NASA dramatically pulled out as a partner.

The second major space power, which last year suffered a humilating failure with its own latest Mars probe Phobos-Grunt, appears ready to provide Proton rocket launchers in 2016 and 2018.

They will also contribute their expertise in designing a system to enter the martian atmosphere and land safely on the surface, as well as scientific experiments.

Partnership with Russia's space agency Roscosmos comes as a great relief to scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) because NASA's withdrawal, following a budget cut by President Obama, meant the loss of more than $2 billion in funding.

Losing NASA still presents ESA with a challenge because it will need to find another 1.2 billion euros to pay for the two missions to Mars, including a rover in 2018 that will look for signs of martian life. NASA currently has its own rover, Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, en route to Mars. Opportunities to fly to Mars come round every couple of years when our two planets are closing in on each other on the same side of the Sun.

ESA members voted last week to continue funding the first launch in 2016, despite NASA's pull-out last month. It will put a probe into orbit around Mars to look for signs of methane and carry out tests for a landing two years later. Other experiments on the probe will measure dust levels and water vapour and take detailed pictures, including stereo images, of the surface of Mars.

The probe would be launched by a Russian Proton rocket rather than an American vehicle. The 2018 mission will land a rover that will drill into the martian surface and carry out a "pregnancy-test" using a UK-developed Life Marker Chip to look for molecules that indicate life. It will also act as a rehearsal for future missions that will bring rock samples back to Earth.

NASA's withdrawal means ESA will probably now need to cut their rover down in size as well as ask for greater financial contributions to fund the missions from their European members.

ESA is still hopeful that the US will find a way to get involved again with ExoMars to make it a truly international mission. A spokesman told the BBC: "The door always remains open to NASA, perhaps to do something for 2018 and further consolidate the mission. They will always be welcome, so long as they bring support."