Russian deal saves missions to Mars

European space scientists are breathing sighs of relief after Russia agreed to rescue two missions to Mars that will search for signs of alien life.

An impression of the ExoMars rover on the Red Planet
An impression of the ExoMars rover on the Red Planet. Credit ESA

Two months ago, cash-strapped NASA pulled out of a joint project with Europe to send spacecraft to orbit and land on the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018.

The UK has contributed £5.5 million towards the ExoMars missions including building and testing a Mars rover, designing software to allow it to think for itself and a “pregnancy test” to look for signs of life in the martian soil. Scientists feared that years of hard work would be wasted without NASA’s expertise and $2 bilion of financial help, including providing rockets to launch the probes.

But over the weekend, Russia’s space agency Roscosmos agreed to replace NASA, putting the ExoMars project back on the launchpad.

You can read my full report on the deal between Roscosmos and ESA today on the space website, including exclusive reaction from leading UK space scientist Professor John Zarnecki, of the Open University, who compared Russia’s agreement to the cavalry riding in to the rescue.

Head of Roscosmos Vladimir Popovkin met Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of the European Space Agency over the weekend to discuss combining forces.

It followed preliminary talks at an Ariane 5 launch at Kourou, French Guiana last month, follows NASA’s decision to pull out as a partner in February as a result of huge cuts to the US space budget.

The space council of the Russian Academy of Sciences approved the deal. Read the full story on the space website

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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