PR 12-1999: Mission to Mars set to revolutionise ESA's working methods
30 March 1999The European Space Agency (ESA) signed a contract on Tuesday 30 March with Matra Marconi Space (MMS), that pioneers a more flexible way of building space science missions and is, in this way, the first trial as an element of a new and ambitious implementation concept which is currently under development for ESA's Scientific Programme. The contract, worth about 60 million Euro, is to design and build the Mars Express spacecraft in time for launch in June 2003. Mars Express will allow European space scientists to investigate whether there is, or ever was, life on the red planet.
ESA took the decision in principle to send a mission to Mars shortly after the loss of the Russian spacecraft Mars 96 with several European experiments on board. The Agency wanted to build on the Mars 96 payload experience to design a mission that would put Europe at the leading-edge of Mars exploration. But ESA had to act quickly. Major space missions can take up to 11 years from concept to launch - and there was little more than six years to go before the positioning of the planets in 2003 would offer the shortest travel time to Mars with the highest payload. Budgetary pressures were also forcing ESA to look for cheaper ways of building spacecraft. A Mars mission therefore seemed a good candidate to explore cheaper and faster working methods.
Mars Express (so called because of the streamlined development time) is the first of a new type of flexible missions in ESA's long-term scientific programme, which should be built and launched for about half the previous budget for similar missions. The global budget for Mars Express will actually be only 150 million Euro including spacecraft development, launch by a Russian Soyuz/Fregat launcher, operations, testing and management costs. Costs are being saved by shortening the time from original concept to launch, re-using existing hardware, adopting new project management practices, and having access to reduced launcher costs.
Selection of the scientific payload by ESA's scientific advisory bodies and mission definition by industry have been performed simultaneously, instead of sequentially as in previous missions. This has cut the time from concept to the awarding of today's design and development contract from about five years to little more than one year. The design and development phase will take under four years, compared with up to six previously.
Mars Express is making maximum use of pre-existing technology, which is either off-the-shelf or has already been developed for the Rosetta mission (also due for launch in 2003), which will land one small probe on a comet. This strategy, in fact, only works when a second mission, such as Mars Express, can use in a recurring manner, technology already applied in a previous mission, such as Rosetta. In future, ESA plans to develop new technologies needed for innovative and ambitious missions also in separate, small technology missions called SMART.
It is indeed a totally new concept where Programme Cornerstones may now become industrial themes spanning over several missions. New technologies are first tested in a small technology mission, then applied in a major mission, whose design and hardware can be utilised in following flexible missions. An industrial cycle is created in this way that gives more launch opportunities and that will also allow implementation in the long term of a global and coherent industrial return for the participants.
A further advantage of this concept applied to Mars Express is that commonalities with Rosetta and payload availability make it possible to streamline management methods by handing over more responsibility to industry. "European space industry is now sufficiently mature, thanks largely to previous experience with ESA missions, to take on these aspects of Mars Express as well as the associated risks," says Rudolf Schmidt, ESA Mars Express Project Manager. MMS, Toulouse, is therefore interacting directly with the principal investigators for the scientific payload and with possible launch suppliers to ensure that technical interfaces are compatible. "Before, ESA was taking the interface role. For Mars Express we have meetings directly with the scientists. This eans that we can agree on the solution to any problem very rapidly," says Philippe Moulinier, Mars Express Spacecraft Manager at MMS, Toulouse.
The use of previously-developed technology means that the number of models can be reduced without substantially increasing risk. This will also shorten the schedule and limit costs. "Before we were developing every new system. Now we are using off-the-shelf and Rosetta technology which means we can offer both low cost and low risk," says Moulinier.
Mars Express was approved by the Science Programme Committee (SPC, the body that has ultimate power of decision over the scientific programme) on the condition that sufficient resources are available and there is no impact on already approved missions. The final approval by SPC for Mars Express, therefore, will have to take into account of the decisions to be taken at the meeting of space ministers in May regarding ESA's scientific programme budget.