ESA expects NASA backing for suspended Mars mission

BERLIN (Reuters) — The European Space Agency expects strong support from its U.S. counterpart NASA after the agency’s plans to cooperate with Russia on a Mars research mission were suspended due to the Ukraine war.

ESA said in March it was suspending cooperation with Russia’s Roscosmos space agency on their joint ExoMars rover mission to search for signs of life on the surface of Mars in the wake of the Ukraine war and sanctions imposed on Moscow. The project was the agency’s largest cooperation project with Roscosmos.

“Administrator Bill Nelson has given us a clear message: NASA wants to help Europe in this situation,” ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher told reporters on June 22 at a news conference at the ILA Berlin Air Show trade fair.

He said ESA talks with NASA over the possible support would be finalized in the coming weeks.

The Mars mission will now be delayed until at least 2026 as spaceships have to be launched in coordination with the movement of Earth and Mars, Aschbacher told Reuters in an interview after the conference.

He also said talks between ESA and Roscosmos mid-June focused solely on the details of closing the partnership that the agency decided to suspend in March.

“Most ExoMars hardware is in Italy, with Russian components in it. Likewise, we have other hardware in Russia. And we have to discuss what we do. Europe needs to get back its components and the Russians want to get back theirs,” Aschbacher said.

He said while the cooperation with Russia was formally only a suspension, a deal with NASA would mean termination of the Russian partnership.

Aschbacher told Reuters the agency also expects no impact on its research operations after cutting ties with Russia.

“The majority of our programs does not involve Russia. People forget our two or three projects with Russia’s involvement are just a few out of very many.”

He said the agency had been able to keep around 80% of its existing operations and is starting new projects, including infrastructure for Earth observation, cybersecurity and autonomous European connectivity.

ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer, who returned to Earth in May after spending 175 days on the International Space Station, said his team ran more than 240 experiments during that one mission.