European Mars mission funding approved even after test lander's crash

LUCERNE, Switzerland (Reuters) - European space agency (ESA) member states have approved another 450 million euros ($479 million) in funding for the ExoMars mission to the Red Planet, even after a test lander that was part of the program crashed in October, ESA said on Friday.

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The European-Russian ExoMars program sent a gas-sniffing orbiter and the test lander to Mars this year to search for signs of past or present life on the Red Planet and to lay the groundwork for a rover that is due to follow in 2020.

The Schiaparelli lander crashed after a sensor failure caused it to cast away its parachute and turn off braking thrusters more than two miles (3.7 km) above the surface of the planet, as though it had already landed.

ESA Director General Jan Woerner said ESA scientists needed to work hard now to meet the schedule for the Mars rover, especially as a delay to the mission beyond 2020 was not an option. “It’s not an easy thing, but we are confident we will succeed,” Woerner said.

The money for ExoMars is part of an overall 10.3 billion euros - close to the 11 billion ESA has requested - for European space programs that the ESA’s 22 member states approved at a two-day meeting in Lucerne which ended on Friday.

That funding includes just over 800 million euros for Europe’s role in the International Space Station (ISS), plus another 153 million for science projects that involve the ISS.

The member states also approved a commitment to extend European participation in the space station to 2024, which will allow ESA to send further astronauts to the ISS.

European astronaut Thomas Pesquet arrived at the ISS last month, around five months after the return of Britain’s first official astronaut, Tim Peake.

Among programs that were not fully backed by ESA members was the Asteroid Impact Mission, which was meant to be part of a mission to explore how to deflect an asteroid heading for Earth.

“The program AIM could not get the full subscription we needed to ensure this program runs smoothly,” Woerner said, adding that asteroid-defense study would continue in other venues within the agency.

“These asteroid activities, looking at how we can really defend our planet in case something is happening and Bruce Willis is not ready to do it a second time... will be continued,” he said, in reference to the 1998 film Armageddon, in which actor Bruce Willis plays a member of a team sent to destroy an asteroid to save planet Earth.

Reporting by John Miller; Writing by Maria Sheahan; editing by Mark Heinrich