Paris: NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have agreed to establish a road map for future Mars missions, slated for the years 2016, 2018 and 2020. The Mars Exploration Joint Initiative (MEJI) will define a string of lander and orbiter missions to Mars, ultimately leading to a sample return mission in the ensuing decade.
According to an ESA release, discussions between ESA and NASA began in December 2008, prompted by a decision of the ESA ministerial council to seek international cooperation to complete the ExoMars mission- now postponed on account of budgetary cutbacks- and to prepare further Mars robotic exploration missions.
The ExoMars rover, intended to search for signs of life on the Red Planet, will not now launch until 2016 because of the high cost of the project. The 1.2bn-euro price tag was deemed to be too high by governments and space officials were asked to look for ways to reduce it.
This was a second postponement for the ExoMars project, an earlier one pushing it from 2011 to 2013. Red Planet missions are only launched when Earth and Mars are favourably aligned, and with current design and financial delays it is likely that the November 2013 departure slot will now slip to a January or February 2016 date.
The recommendation coincided with a reassessment by NASA of its own Mars Exploration Program portfolio with the postponement of the launch of its Mars Science Laboratory, from 2009 to 201, as the programme is way over budget. NASA has also had its own share of budgetary cutbacks to contend with.
The decision to delay ExoMars was a bitter blow for Europe's scientists as it was intended as a flagship venture of ESA's Aurora programme, its roadmap to explore the Solar System.