Europe's Presence In Space At Risk As US, Other States Go Ahead With Missions To Mars

Europe's Presence in Space at Risk as US, Other States Go Ahead With Missions to Mars

The United States' Perseverance Rover, which along with the United Arab Emirates and China have launched missions to Mars over the past year, successfully landed on the planet's surface earlier this week, leaving Europe's effort to reach the Red Planet behind and putting a severe blow to its presence in space

BRUSSELS (UrduPoint News / Sputnik - 20th February, 2021) The United States' Perseverance Rover, which along with the United Arab Emirates and China have launched missions to Mars over the past year, successfully landed on the planet's surface earlier this week, leaving Europe's effort to reach the Red Planet behind and putting a severe blow to its presence in space.

Following suit of the Chinese and Emirati space agencies, the US has launched its fifth over $2.5-billion mission to Mars, in which the Perseverance Rover is set to explore the dry-bed of an ancient lake and river delta for signs of microbial life that could have lived in a watery environment three million years ago.

The US Martian expedition is the result of international cooperation with Europeans. Though the European Space Agency (ESA) was not directly involved in preparing the mission, individual research centers, universities and companies, based in France, Switzerland, Belgium or Germany, did contribute to launching NASA's rover.

In particular, the so-called Supercam, the instrument perched on the mast of the rover, was designed by Sylvestre Maurice, a French astrophysicist at the IRAP space laboratory in Toulouse. The device incorporates five different remote scanning techniques to provide a very detailed description of targets. Another European scientist participating in the mission is geologist Vincianne Debaille from the University of Brussels. Debaille is engaged in the program, which is aimed at selecting Martian rocks, the samples of which will be collected by the rover.

"This mission, it is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but we selected this place on the planet hoping to find a past life there. We think that if we find any, it will probably be there. As for a possible current life, who knows, why not? We can always dream. I have been working in close connection with my American colleagues for months on the project," the scientist told Sputnik.


In the past, only the US' NASA, Russia's Roscosmos and Europe's ESA were launching rockets, putting satellites in orbit or traveling to the Moon. But after NASA's shuttle program ended, the US, European and Japanese astronauts for years had to rely on Russian Soyuz carrier rockets to reach the International Space Station (ISS), managed by Russia, which for a time was the only major space operator of the world.

Now, private companies have replaced NASA as the main drivers of the US space program, working in collaboration with the government space agency. US aerospace manufacturer Space X, founded by Elon Musk, has developed Crew Dragon manned spacecraft that brought NASA astronauts to the ISS in November. Apart from SpaceX, other private companies are aiming at reducing space transportation costs by developing reusable vertical take-off-and-landing rockets, such as Blue Origin, funded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

More countries are now joining international efforts to send space probes. China has now become one of the major players in space exploration, putting a satellite on the Red Planet's orbit last week, with its rover expected to land on Mars in May or June. The UAE, in turn, launched its Emirates Mars Mission the first interplanetary mission undertaken by an Arab nation. Last week, the mission reached its orbit around the Red Planet, making the UAE the fifth state globally to reach the planet.

Meanwhile, the ESA, having a space launching pad in French Guiana, where a long series of Ariane rockets were launched from, putting all sorts of satellites in orbit for many different countries, is in crisis now due to competition from Russian, the US and soon Chinese launchers.


The failure of the Vega VV17 mission with two satellites last November came at the worst possible time for Europe, as the US SpaceX had a series of accomplishments.

The European Vega carrier rocket exploded 8 minutes following the launch from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou in French Guiana due to a deviation of trajectory, losing both French and Spanish satellites, according to Paris-based Arianespace launch provider. With the loss of these satellites, 15 years of research work went up in smoke.

Commenting on the November launch, General Jerome Pellistrandi, the editor-in-chief of the Defense Nationale magazine, called it a very serious failure for the European launch industry. According to the general, unlike NASA that returned its total autonomy with manned flights by SpaceX, the ESA is incapable of having a unifying project and lost its sovereignty.

Vega, Arianespace's small, versatile and lightweight launcher, had been developed by the Europeans to be an option for launches, alongside Ariane 5, the Russian Soyuz or the US private rockets.

The failure of the Vega launcher, which began operating in February 2012, has plunged Europe's space industry into a historic crisis. The failed shot has forced Arianespace to postpone future launches, including those of the first two satellites in the Pleiades Neo constellation from Airbus scheduled for early 2021.


In early 2021, Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for Internal Market in charge of space said that the 22 members of the ESA should unite around competitive projects stemming from the common space policy, adding that the agency must change its methods and "do space differently."

According to Breton, ESA member countries should be aligned around projects capable of changing certain rules, in particular, that of geographic return which degrades the competitiveness of space products. However, ESA is not an EU agency. It will therefore be necessary to convince the 22 member states to reform and integrate more in order to forge an effective partnership with the EU.

"European space projects always suffer from the same disease: all participating companies, heavily sponsored by their governments want to obtain a direct return of the project in their own country, with the lowest possible risk. The result is bloated budgets, duplications, slow processes and lack of team focus. It functions in totally protected sectors such as military equipment or aeronautics where Airbus can be costly without being really threatened since its only competitor Boeing shows the same low efficiency," a former ESA member told Sputnik, under the condition of anonymity.

Commenting on Breton's appeal, the former head called him an industrialist, who knows that to succeed in this "last chance" effort in space, Europe should speed up and adopt a "modern, agile and efficient" governance, since the methods of the past are no longer suitable and threaten Europe with downgrading.

"Europe has failed to develop the returnable, reusable rockets that are now the industry standard in rocket launches, as set by [the US'] SpaceX and Blue Origin. The European space sector cannot make another mistake. It must lead the quantum revolution," the specialist added, referring to the Pleiades Neo constellation project.

According to the ex-ESA chief, the project is really "disruptive." It is a sort of European internet, different from the existing one, based on quantum technology, hundreds of satellites, that would ensure the security of European connections against cyberattacks. The constellation is set to replace terrestrial installations and provide surveillance from space.

The estimated budget of the future European constellation is 5 billion euros ($6 billion) and the project should be finalized by the end of 2021 to enter service before 2028. A consortium of industrialists is involved in the project's implementation along with the Ariane group, including Airbus Space, Thales Alenia Space and OHB satellite manufacturers, as well as the Eutelsat satellite operator and the Orange telecommunications operator, among others.

This implies the transformation of the ESA into a more integrated and efficient agency, on the model of NASA the goal that the new Austrian director of ESA, Josef Aschbacher, intends to reach.

"With the EU, we will build the spatial vision for 2035. We will work with the member states so that ESA becomes a modern agency, agile and quick in its decision-making," Aschbacher said.

The first and good example of what is coming is ESA's support for the Swiss start-up company, ClearSpace. In 2019, the two reached the first global contract to catch space debris and remove it from Earth's orbit. It is planned to be launched in 2025.