Today is a big day for the European Space Agency. Its governing ministerial council approved a 17% increase in funding, pledged to support the International Space Station until 2030 and promised to ensure the Rosalind Franklin rover makes it to Mars after the European-Russian ExoMars project is been derailed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, ESA has announced a new class of astronauts.
ESA’s Director General, Josef Aschbacher, praised the Council’s approval of a 17% increase in funding, even though it is less than the 25% increase he had requested, noting the economic difficulties in Europe in this moment because of the war in Ukraine.
“Faced with economic difficulties, it is important to invest wisely in industries that create jobs and prosperity in Europe. Through this investment, we are building a Europe whose space agenda reflects its political strength and economic future. We are empowering space in Europe, ushering in a new era of ambition, determination, strength and pride. Climate and sustainability will remain ESA’s top priority, our science and exploration will inspire the next generation, and we will build a place where European space entrepreneurs will thrive.”
ESA’s 22 member states meet every three years to approve ESA programs and funding: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
Canada is a member of the Council and participates in a cooperation agreement. Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia and Lithuania are associate members and ESA has cooperation agreements with Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Malta.
Each member is required to pay for mandatory activities, which include ESA’s science programme, while choosing whether or not to participate in optional programs including human and robotic exploration and launch vehicles.
After some last-minute negotiations that delayed the press conference announcing the results, Aschbacher presented three charts summarizing the total of €16.9 billion members agreed to provide over the next three years, an increase of 17% compared to the budget of the last Ministerial Council (CM ) meeting in 2019.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 reversed ESA’s cooperation with Russia on launch vehicles and the ExoMars mission to send a lander and rover to Mars. Russia built the lander and was expected to launch the spacecraft, while ESA supplied the Rosalind Franklin rover equipped with a drill to drill 2 meters (6.5 feet) into the surface of Mars.
Russia has suspended cooperation with Europe’s Arianespace for commercial launches of the Soyuz medium-class rocket from two Russian launch sites and the European Guyana Space Center in French Guiana. ESA prefers to use European rockets, but has had to turn to SpaceX to launch two of its satellites while waiting for its new Ariane 6 to enter service. Another new rocket, the smaller Vega-C, just made its maiden flight this summer.
France, Germany and Italy, ESA’s three biggest contributors, agreed today to fully support Ariane 6, Vega-C and an Italian reusable vehicle that can remain in low Earth orbit for up to two months called the Space Rider. Aschbacher called the agreement reached today a “milestone”. He said he was concerned that support for European launchers “hasn’t been as strong as it should be” but “thanks to politicians” who have provided “clear guidance”, the required support has finally materialised.
ESA has terminated the ExoMars partnership with Russia and is trying to find another way to get the Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars. The lander/rover combination is still in Italy, where the rover was built and integrated into the lander. Aschbacher said several outcomes were being considered, including placing it in a museum, but luckily “Europe will take responsibility” for completing the mission using mostly European technology. However, ESA will also work “with our American friends” who have indicated they “could contribute” to the launch vehicle, brake motor and radioisotope heating units needed to keep the vehicle warm on the Martian surface. “I should be very specific that their input obviously has yet to be confirmed because they waited for our decision today.” ESA intends to launch the rover in 2028.
ESA has also confirmed its participation in the NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return mission to bring back Mars samples that have just now been collected by the Perseverance rover.
ExoMars and Mars Sample Return are part of ESA’s human and robotic exploration programme, which will receive €2.7 billion.
This includes ESA’s commitment to continue participation in the International Space Station program through 2030. The United States is seeking agreement from all ISS partners to keep the ISS operating until the end of the decade. Japan was the first to formally pledge last week. Now ESA has done it. Canada should also say yes. The most recent indications from Russia are that they may do so if they are confident their hardware is technically feasible.
Today’s agreement also supports ESA’s participation in lunar exploration with the United States, including additional European service modules for NASA’s Orion spacecraft, the European portion of the Gateway space station which will orbit the Moon, a lunar lander logistics, Argonaut, and a constellation of communications satellites around the Moon called Chiaro di Luna.
The NASA-ESA Gateway deal includes a commitment to send three European astronauts there, which Aschbacher sees as a step towards Europeans on the Moon.
Today, ESA also announced its new class of astronauts. A total of 17 were selected, five of whom are ‘career’ astronauts who will immediately join ESA’s current astronaut corps. Eleven others are “reserve” astronauts who will continue in their current jobs, but will work with ESA under contract to be ready for future flight opportunities. ESA decided to open up the astronaut opportunity to people with disabilities and selected a “parastronaut”.