ESA Ends Lunar Cooperation with Russia, Turns to NASA, Commercial Partners

ESA Ends Lunar Cooperation with Russia, Turns to NASA, Commercial Partners

The European Space Agency took another step today towards ending cooperation with Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. In addition to terminating its role in the ExoMars mission, ESA now is withdrawing from three Russian robotic missions to the Moon and turning to NASA and commercial partners to get the ESA hardware to the lunar surface.

ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher speaking at an ESA press conference, April 13, 2022. Screengrab.

Today’s announcement by ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher followed a meeting of the ESA Council, the governing body of the 22-member international organization.

Aschbacher said ESA sent a letter to Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos that it no longer will participate in the Luna-25, Luna-26, and Luna-27 missions. Luna-25 and Luna-27 are landers. Luna-26 is an orbiter.

Luna-25 is scheduled for launch just a few months from now and ESA’s PILOT-D landing camera is already integrated into the spacecraft. Aschbacher said he asked Roscosmos to remove it and send it back.

Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin said he would do just that. “So we’re going to remove their devices from our spacecraft. Good riddance! One less European dame off our backs, so Russia should go far with a lighter load.”

ESA and Roscosmos had a number of cooperative agreements for robotic space exploration. Both also are among the partners in the International Space Station along with the United States, Canada, and Japan. So far, ISS cooperation is continuing as normal despite the geopolitical situation on Earth.

The outcome is different for robotic exploration. The marquee ESA-Russia planetary exploration program was ExoMars where Russia built a lander and ESA a rover to explore the Martian surface. Their attempts to land spacecraft on Mars in the past — Russia in the 1970s, ESA in 2016 — were less than successful. Paired with the Roscosmos/ESA ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter already in orbit around Mars, scientists were eagerly anticipating data from the lander/rover with launch scheduled this September after repeated delays. Now ESA has withdrawn from the program. Its Rosalind Franklin rover is still in Italy. Russia is assessing options for proceeding without it.

On March 17, Aschbacher said ESA was creating a list of all activities and projects, including Luna-25, and components they get from Russia and going through it “one by one” to determine the path forward.

Today’s decision is on the Russia-ESA Lunar Resurs program, or Luna-Glob in Russian.

David Parker, ESA Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, speaking at an ESA press conference April 13, 2022. Screengrab.

ESA is developing technology for precision landing on the Moon (PILOT) and for extracting and analyzing lunar resources (PROSPECT) with a drill and mass spectrometer.

Luna-25 was to carry a demonstration landing camera, PILOT-D, to gather images as part of ESA’s development of the PILOT system. It is already mounted on the Luna-25 spacecraft awaiting launch.

ESA Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker said today it is “purely an experiment” and not part of Luna-25’s operational systems, so should not impact the Luna-25 mission itself. ESA’s “request is to have this dismounted and returned at a convenient date in the future.”

Luna-26 is a lunar polar orbiter scheduled for launch in 2024. ESA planned to demonstrate using it as a communications relay between lunar landers and Earth.

Luna-27 is another lander that was to use the PILOT precision navigation and landing system and deliver the PROSPECT drill and mass spectrometer to find and analyze subsurface water ice and other chemicals. Parker said in this case the ESA systems were “from an engineering point of view a central part of the mission.” It is scheduled for launch in 2026.

Aschbacher and Parker said today they already have secured alternative rides on NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) missions. Through CLPS, NASA is purchasing transportation services to the lunar surface for robotic landers from private companies that build the landers and find launch service providers. NASA provides only payloads and money and the companies are encouraged and expected to find non-NASA customers as well. NASA planned two CLPS missions per year, but the two scheduled for 2021 slipped into 2022. At the moment three CLPS missions are scheduled for this year and three for next year. They will continue indefinitely into the future.

Parker said a “subelement” of the PROSPECT mass spectrometer already is slated for launch this year on Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander. The full Exospheric Mass Spectrometer (EMS) will fly on the Japanese/Indian LUPEX rover in 2024 under an agreement signed last week, and again on a CLPS mission with NASA in 2025 instead of Luna-27.

The drill, being built by Leonardo, will fly on the 2025 CLPS mission “and I wouldn’t be surprised if we find other opportunities in due course because it’s a piece of unique European technology that derives originally from the Rosetta drill and the drill for ExoMars,” Parker added. The Philae lander on ESA’s Rosetta comet mission had a drill.

In short, it looks as though ESA is successfully reorienting is robotic lunar program without Russia, although the fate of ExoMars is still up in the air. NASA and ESA already are working together on the Mars Sample Return mission to bring samples of Mars back to Earth early in the next decade. The two are discussing what can be done about ExoMars. Aschbacher said today studies are underway and he will report on the options to the ESA Council at its meeting in July.

ESA Infographic on its Moonlight concept. Credit: ESA

ESA has extensive plans for both human and robotic exploration of the Moon. It is a partner with NASA on the Artemis program, providing the Service Module for the Orion crew spacecraft and modules for the lunar-orbiting Gateway space station. The PILOT precision navigation and landing system is designed to support a European Large Logistic Lander ESA hopes to launch later this decade. Today the ESA Council approved a lunar-orbiting navigation and communication system, Moonlight, to be used by robotic rovers and astronauts.

ESA has 22 member states: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Slovakia just became an Associate Member, joining Slovenia, Latvia and Lithuania. Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, and Cyprus have Cooperation Agreements.

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