Europe has reaffirmed its commitment to the ExoMars mission, Earth observation and the international space station as science ministers pledge funds to the European Space Agency.
The UK is to invest heavily in space programs agreed at the ESA ministerial meeting in Lucerne last week. The UK Space Agency is to spend a total of €1.4bn on ESA missions over the next five years. British-built satellites for Earth observation, navigation, and telecommunications will receive €670.5m of investment, while climate change monitoring program ECSAT based at Harwell in Oxfordshire will receive €23m. Despite a setback with a crash landing of the experimental Mars lander Schiaparelli earlier this year, the ministers also decided to commit €82.4m to the next phase of the ExoMars programme, due to launch in 2020, whose rover component will be built in the UK.
ESA has also committed to taking part in the International Space Station program until 2024, which will take it up to the end of the station’s proposed lifetime. This means there will be further official ESA astronaut missions to the ISS.
The agency had asked the Council of ministers of the 22 member states to fund €11bn worth of projects, and after a day and a half of discussions, €10.3bn funding was approved. The ministers agreed to meet the shortfall of €436m for the ExoMars program, which is a joint-venture with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, with the two leading European nations on the project, the UK and Italy, supplying the largest amounts (€82m and €171m respectively). The UK put the largest amount of all the nations into climate observation, making it the lead nation in this sector, as well as telecoms and navigation where it held the lead status prior to the meeting.
Future projects which have yet to be fleshed out include a deep space habitat, which will orbit the null gravitational point between the Earth and the moon and act as a staging point for future lunar missions. Planned as an ‘next stage’ after the ISS project ends, the habitat is being discussed by ESA and NASA and earlier this year was mentioned as a target for the next decade. However, this was beyond the scope of the current ministerial meeting.
ESA’s head of human and robotic exploration, David Parker, previously chief executive of the UK space agency, said that the science represented by ExoMars is compelling. “Nobody else is doing the science that is planned for ExoMars, drilling below the surface of the planet for the first time and actually directly looking for signs of past life,” he commented.
ESA is autonomous from the European Union, and therefore will not be affected by the outcome of Brexit, but the UK’s participation in several non-ESA space programmes is still in the balance.