From the Earth to the Moon and on to Mars – ESA and NASA take decisions and plan for the future

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Image credit: NASA

The next steps in exploring and using space for the benefit of European citizens were this week on the agenda at ESA’s Council meeting in ESA/ESTEC, the Netherlands on 14 and 15 June. The possibility of the first-ever European astronaut to set foot on the Moon, a telecommunication satellite for lunar exploration and a mission to return precious rock samples from Mars were all discussed.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson joined the meeting with ESA Member States in a decisive gesture to advocate for Europe’s strong role in multiple projects which reinforce the enduring partnership between the two leading space agencies.

From understanding our changing planet to exploring Mars, I hugely value the cooperation we have with NASA,” says ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher.  “By contributing key European hardware and services to exciting programmes such as Artemis and Mars Sample Return, we are building Europe’s autonomy while also being a reliable partner.

We are travelling farther out into the cosmos than ever before – and whether on the ISS in low-Earth orbit, at the Moon through our Artemis missions, on Mars and beyond, NASA and ESA’s partnership in science and exploration shows us what is possible when we work together to develop groundbreaking science and technology for the benefit of humanity. NASA is counting on cooperation with ESA to propel exploration of the Moon through the Artemis programme. The European Service Module is the powerhouse of the Orion spacecraft, providing our astronauts with in-space manoeuvring capabilities, life support, and power that will safely transport our astronauts to the Moon and back home to Earth,” says Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator.

Europe plays an essential part in returning humans to the Moon. It is an exhilarating feeling to know that our modules are set for not just one, but several lunar trips before this decade is out,” adds Josef Aschbacher.

A European on the Moon?

ESA’s long-term provision of service modules for the Orion spacecraft ensures that NASA’s Artemis programme can send astronauts to the Moon and beyond. Already, ESA provides service modules as part of its contribution for the International Space Station programme, and there is now an agreement in place to fly three ESA astronauts aboard Orion to the deep space outpost that the international partners are now building and known as the Gateway.

But this strategic partnership is now setting the path for the first-ever European astronaut to land on the Moon.

We look forward to having an ESA astronaut join us on the surface of the Moon and continuing to build on our longstanding, critical partnership,” says NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

A ride to the surface of the Moon for a European could be the benefit of fresh ESA contributions to Artemis.  European contributions could include delivery of cargo and infrastructure to the Moon by the European Large Logistic Lander (EL3) to be named Argonaut, communication and navigation services through the proposed Moonlight programme as well as science and technology for surface exploration. These projects among others will be on the table for discussion at the ESA Council of Ministers in Paris later this year.

Building the lunar economy

A key step toward this vision was agreed upon in an innovative agreement signed by the ESA Director General and the NASA Administrator at the ESA Council.

UK company SSTL is already building Lunar Pathfinder, the first commercial lunar telecommunications relay satellite available for users worldwide. ESA signed up last year to buy services from SSTL. Going forward, NASA and ESA will combine forces: NASA will deliver Lunar Pathfinder to lunar orbit through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative and ESA will provide NASA with access to lunar telecommunications. Further, in a unique ESA-NASA collaboration, tests will be made of using satellite navigation signals and laser ranging to demonstrate a satnav positioning fix in lunar orbit for the first time.

These tests will be a valuable step toward Moonlight, whose vision is to create a network of communications and navigation satellites supporting Lunar exploration, just as today we navigate using Galileo and GPS on Earth.

Thanks to this Memorandum of Understanding between the two space agencies, we are empowering sustainable lunar exploration while supporting commercial European businesses,” says David Parker, ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration.

UK Space Agency CEO Paul Bate welcomed the signing of the agreement between ESA DG and NASA Administrator, Bill Nelson that enables UK company SSTL to provide communications relay services to missions in lunar orbit and on the surface of the Moon.

I am delighted to see this next step in the cooperation between ESA, NASA and UK industry,” said UK Space Agency Chief Executive, Paul Bate. “Space is an essential growth area of the UK economy, and it is exciting to see this now extending even to the Moon. If  we ever needed confirmation that Space is a team sport, this is it.

Martian horizons

Hunting for signs of past Martian life, the ExoMars 2022 mission was set to fly to the Red Planet later this year, but the launch was cancelled as a consequence of the Russian aggression toward Ukraine. 

ESA and NASA are assessing collaboration efforts to implement the mission of the ExoMars rover ‘Rosalind Franklin’. The rover was designed and built to perform as a mobile surface science laboratory platform for drilling Mars soil and conducting science experiments in-situ. NASA has provided key elements of one of the life-search instruments for Rosalind Franklin, MOMA, and already uses the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter for relaying science data from its landers and rovers.

ESA’s science and engineering teams are working on a fast-track industrial study to better define the available options for a way forward to implement the ExoMars rover mission.

In deepening our partnership in Mars exploration, which also includes the ground-breaking Mars Sample Return campaign, NASA is determining how best to support our European friends on the ExoMars mission,” says NASA Administrator, Bill Nelson.

Meanwhile, we will continue to work together on refining the architecture of Mars Sample Return,” added Josef Aschbacher. “Overall, we want to achieve the best scientific return from our collective investments, on both sides of the Atlantic.

ESA Member States will further discuss the way forward for Rosalind Franklin at their July Council meeting.

Looking back at Earth

ESA and NASA have also signed a Framework Agreement for a Strategic Partnership in Earth System Science. The two agencies plan to lead a global response to climate change, through the monitoring of the Earth and its environment with combined efforts in Earth science observations, research, and applications, in support of adaptation and mitigation measures.

The unprecedented strategic partnership sets the standard for future international collaboration and ensures data from Earth-observing satellites are used to their best advantage, further science and, ultimately, bring the most benefit to humankind. The themes include observing systems to ensure sustained observations, collaboration on data policy and exploitation, as well as open science.

When it comes to global challenges such as the climate crisis, we each have our role to play,” concludes Josef Aschbacher, ESA Director General, “but it’s only by joining forces that we can achieve more,” adding “with leadership on both sides of the Atlantic more committed to tackle this than ever, ESA and NASA have a historic chance to further make space an integral part of the solution when it comes to climate change mitigation.

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