With a significant new cross-support agreement, ESA and NASA strengthen their relationship. On June 15, NASA and the ESA (European Space Agency) announced plans to collaborate on Earth science as well as a lunar mission. Agency chiefs stated they are still talking about more in-depth collaboration on the Artemis project and Mars exploration, though.
The ESA Council convened in Noordwijk, Netherlands, and two new partnership agreements were announced by NASA and the ESA following the conference. The first, titled the Framework Agreement for a Strategic Partnership in Earth System Science, defines cooperation between the organizations on issues like measurement continuity and data exchange. It expands on the collaborative declaration of purpose the organizations made in July 2021.
The second deal is a MoU (memorandum of understanding) for Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.’s Lunar Pathfinder, which is a commercial lunar communications spaceship being developed with the ESA as an anchor client. The end of 2024 or the beginning of 2025 is the anticipated launch dates. Via its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, NASA will organize the launch of Lunar Pathfinder and have access to the communications capabilities of the spacecraft. On a navigation experiment utilizing the spacecraft, NASA and ESA will also work together.
At the ESA Council meeting, Bill Nelson, the NASA Administrator, and Josef Aschbacher, the Director of ESA, signed the agreements. A NASA official attended a council meeting for the first time, according to the agency, which is the ESA’s governing body.
Aschbacher and Nelson elaborated on the topic of increased agency cooperation during a press conference held after the council meeting. They discussed potential roles for NASA in helping ESA deal with the effects of sanctions brought on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as other topics. That also applies to the mission of ExoMars rover, which was supposed to deploy in September but has already been put on hold indefinitely as a result of ESA’s break with Roscosmos.
The connection between ESA and NASA has, according to Aschbacher, “intensified” since the 24th of February. “The NASA hand extended to us in orbit was very much appreciated and welcomed,” said the astronaut.
However, he added that the ESA is still assessing possibilities for continuing ExoMars, including some that include NASA support. According to Aschbacher as well as other ESA officials, they may ask NASA for the mission launch as well as new descent engines meant for the ExoMars lander and radioisotope heating units to maintain the rover warm during the night.
Nelson’s “quite strong” letter of support for ExoMars was among the “assistance to perform studies” that NASA “gave,” according to Aschbacher, but ESA had not yet made a decision regarding the mission’s course. ExoMars will not be incorporated into the NASA and ESA program to return Mars materials to Earth that the Perseverance rover has collected, according to him.