Today’s a big day for the European Space Agency. Its governing Ministerial Council approved a 17 percent increase in funding, committed to support the International Space Station through 2030, and vowed to ensure that the Rosalind Franklin rover makes it to Mars after the European-Russian ExoMars project was derailed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On top of all that, ESA announced a new class of astronauts.
ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher praised the Council’s approval of a 17 percent funding increase even though it is less than the 25 percent hike he requested, noting the economic hardship in Europe right now because of the war in Ukraine.
“When faced with economic hardship, 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 mirrors its political and future economic strength. We are boosting space in Europe, kicking off a new era of ambition, determination, strength and pride. Climate and sustainability will remain ESA’s highest priority, our science and exploration will inspire the next generation, and we shall build a place where European space entrepreneurs thrive.”
ESA’s 22 member states meet every three years to approve ESA programs and funding: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
Canada sits on the Council and takes part under 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 program, while they choose whether or not to participate in optional programs including launch vehicles and human and robotic exploration.
After some last minute negotiations that delayed the press conference announcing the results, Aschbacher presented three charts summarizing the total of 16.9 billion Euros the members agreed to provide for the next three years, a 17 percent increase over the budget from the last Ministerial Council (CM ) meeting in 2019.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 upended ESA’s cooperation with Russia on launch vehicles as well as the ExoMars mission to send a lander and rover to Mars. Russia built the lander and was to launch the spacecraft, while ESA provided the Rosalind Franklin rover equipped with a drill to drill 2 meters (6.5 feet) down into the surface of Mars.
Russia suspended cooperation with Europe’s Arianespace for commercial launches of the medium-class Soyuz rocket from two Russian launch sites and Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana. ESA prefers to use European rockets, but has had to turn to SpaceX to launch two of its satellites as it waits for its new Ariane 6 to enter service. Another new rocket, the smaller Vega-C, just had its first flight this summer.
France, Germany and Italy, ESA’s three largest 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 Space Rider. Aschbacher called the agreement reached today a “milestone.” He said he’d worried that support for European launchers “has not been as strong as it should be” but “thanks to the politicians” who provided “clear guidance,” the required support materialized in the end.
ESA 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 onto the lander. Aschbacher said that several outcomes were considered including putting it in a museum, but happily “Europe will take responsibility” for completing the mission mostly using European technology. However, ESA will also work “with our American friends” who have indicated they “might contribute” the launch vehicle, the braking engine, and the radioisotope heating units needed to keep the vehicle warm on the Martian surface. “I should be very precise that their contribution, of course, still needs to be confirmed because they’ve waited for our decision today.” ESA intends to launch the rover in 2028.
ESA also confirmed its participation in the NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return mission to bring back samples of Mars that are being collected by the Perseverance rover right now.
ExoMars and Mars Sample Return are part of ESA’s human and robotic exploration program, which will get 2.7 billion Euros.
That includes ESA’s commitment to continue participation in the International Space Station program through 2030. The United States is seeking agreement from all the ISS partners to keep ISS going through the end of the decade. Japan was the first to formally make the commitment last week. Now ESA has done so. Canada is also expected to say yes. The most recent indications from Russia are that they might if they are confident their hardware is technically viable.
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, Europe’s portion of the Gateway space station that will orbit the Moon, a logistics lunar lander, Argonaut, and a constellation of communications satellites around the Moon called Moonlight.
The NASA-ESA agreement on Gateway 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 the existing ESA astronaut corps. Eleven others are “reserve” astronauts who will continue in their current jobs, but work with ESA under contract to be ready for future flight opportunities. ESA decided to open the astronaut opportunity to people with disabilities and selected one “parastronaut.”