As the aerospace industry gathers in Farnborough to talk business, assess its achievements and scan its horizons, one notable point to mark is that the very distant horizon of Mars is getting closer.
Nobody is going to Mars – certainly not until the 2030s, if even then – but all the same, some of the breathless excitement associated with truly new eras of interplanetary exploration is in order. Because Mars – a small bit of it, anyway – will be coming to us.
On the eve of the air show, the European Space Agency awarded Airbus a contract to realise the European half of a NASA-ESA Mars sample return mission. Envisioned to launch in 2026, the return mission will rendezvous with NASA's Mars 2020 rover, a car-sized machine due to fly in July 2020 carrying a diverse payload pack that includes machinery to drill down and harvest surface samples and store them until the arrival of a return-to-Earth courier service.
That return service involves two further missions to Mars. One is a 2026 NASA lander mission, which will carry the Airbus-built Sample Fetch Rover. As its name implies, the Sample Fetch Rover will drive over to Mars 2020 vehicle and collect its 36 pen-sized samples. This mission will also carry an ascent vehicle incorporating a sample container.
The second mission is another ESA-Airbus job; this Earth Return Orbiter will be waiting in Mars orbit for the ascent vehicle and its basketball-sized sample container – which will be sealed into a "biocontainment system" and returned to Earth, for a landing in the USA.
All going well, then, scientists from around the world, equipped with heavy-duty analysis equipment that could not be flown across interplanetary space, will have access to some of Mars by the end of the next decade.
Much, of course, depends on lots of things working right, including some ambitious firsts: interaction of two rovers, launch from Mars and in-orbit cargo transfer. Just to make things more challenging – although failure will not affect the sample return mission – NASA has now contracted AeroVironment to build a drone to be carried by the Mars 2020 rover; the air pressure at the Martian surface is equivalent to that at an altitude of 100,000ft on Earth, so flying will be no mean feat.
Patrick Lelong, Airbus project manager for the Earth Return Orbiter project, sums it up with admirable understatement: "The mission is technologically very challenging, but the prospect of seeing a sample of Mars returning to Earth is very exciting."
The whole ambitious affair underscores the reality that while out-of-this-world technical achievements demand huge imagination and engineering capability to match, they are almost invariably founded on the very human bedrock of co-operation.
One organisation, one agency, even one country can rarely act alone; for reasons of budget, expertise, capacity and goodwill, collaboration is the lubricant of the 21st Century. In the case of returning samples from Mars, that collaboration is both transatlantic and pan-European. So, the very terrestrial matter of European unity is especially pertinent.
For Airbus, Toulouse is the focus of Earth Return Orbiter development. Its rovers centre of excellence is Stevenage – currently building the ExoMars rover, for launch as part of a Europe-Russia mission in 2020. The fact that Stevenage will soon be outside the EU would appear to be neither here nor there. The United Kingdom is an ESA member state and, indeed, the fourth-largest contributor to its budget, behind France, Germany and Italy.
Both the Fetch and Return missions will have to be approved by ESA's 22 member states when they next meet at ministerial level in 2019. That approval should come, assuming work by then points to likely technical success, and assuming as-per-precedent that France and the UK will cover the lion's share of the costs in keeping with their hosting of the industrial efforts.
But ESA is a hybrid beast; all members of the EU are not members of ESA, and all members of ESA are not members of the EU – Norway and Switzerland are full members of ESA, and the UK will remain so after Brexit. Complicating the picture is the fact that ESA is also the EU's mechanism for delivering its ambitions in space, a domain over which the EU – via the European Commission – was made responsible by the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. Since Lisbon, then, there has been a simmering tension between the Commission and ESA over remits.
In practice, this tension has been mostly theoretical. But temperatures rose this year in the run-up to the 6 June release of the Commission's proposed budget for 2021-2027. Brussels has for several years now been increasingly active with its space remit, working through ESA to deliver Ariane and Vega launch services and the Galileo (satellite navigation) and Copernicus (Earth observation) programmes.
And the Commission has in recent years made clear its belief that all three of those remits – access to space, navigation and Earth imaging – are strategically critical 21st century capabilities over which Europe must maintain independent control. Moreover, Brussels' language of strategic independence has in the past few years broadened to cover security and defence.
So it is no surprise that ESA has grown concerned that that the Commission would seek to create a new, entirely-EU space agency. As ESA director-general Jan Woerner noted in a 31 May blog post: "Europe is already a very important space power." But in response to a changing global environment, with "fierce competition" from new space-faring nations and private companies, he added: “We need a strong co-ordinated, united European space sector.” EU, intergovernmental, national and private investment have a place, and a future structure of the public space sector in Europe must be devised, "avoiding duplications but taking credit of existing expertise, infrastructure and competencies".
In the end, the Commission's €16 billion ($18.8 billion) budget proposal – covering Galileo, Copernicus and a new programme to pool member-state resources to ensure governments have access to secure satellite communications and boost space situational awareness – has as its principal new strategic aim to "[consolidate] all Union space-related activities into a coherent, simplified and flexible programme".
The Commission describes itself as overall programme manager and ESA as "a major partner in technical and operational implementation of the EU space programme", so the status quo appears to prevail. Expect, though, some evolution at the Prague-headquartered European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency.
The GSA, as it is known, will be renamed the "EU Agency for the Space Programme" and will "increasingly support the exploitation and market uptake of EU space activities and play an increased role in ensuring the security of all the components of the programme".
That focus on security will certainly be a growth activity, and one that may brush aside those ESA member states who are not EU members. But for now, the long-established distinction between Brussels as "owner" of Europe's space programmes and ESA as their deliverer would appear to stand.