Only collaboration will get humans to the moon and Mars rock to Earth, space leaders say

ESA Director-General Jan Woerner and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine seen in April 2019.
ESA Director-General Jan Woerner and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine seen in April 2019. (Image credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

Space agencies are at a crucial pivot point as international consortiums embark on ambitious endeavors like returning samples from Mars and sending human missions to the moon, according to a recent panel discussion.

NASA chief Jim Bridenstine and Jan Woerner, director-general of the European Space Agency, starred in a panel at the online International Astronautical Congress on Oct. 14 that also included a broader discussion about where the two agencies will go next.

The discussion is happening at a crucial moment on both sides of the Atlantic. NASA is in 2021 fiscal year budget discussions with Congress and also awaiting the outcome of the U.S. presidential election next month, while striving to meet the Trump administration's goal of landing people on the moon by 2024 under the Artemis program. Meanwhile, ESA is dealing with the gradual departure of the U.K. under Brexit, along with the novel coronavirus pandemic that is affecting countries all around the world (including the U.S.).

Related: NASA is testing the first of its new moonwalking spacesuits

On the same day as the panel, NASA released news about a coalition of agencies signing on to a set of principals drawn up to govern collaboration on the Artemis program and space exploration in general. 

Several agencies have also committed specific contributions to the program, adding on to ESA's commitment last year with Airbus to provide three service modules for the moon-landing effort. The Artemis work builds upon decades of space agency cooperation on the International Space Station, Bridenstine said during the panel.

"This collaboration is critically important," Bridenstine said of NASA's Artemis work with ESA. "Because of what we have done on the International Space Station," he added, "we are poised to have the biggest, most collaborative, most inclusive, most diverse human exploration program in history with the Artemis program." 

Cooperation for robots 

Meanwhile, Russia's Roscosmos space agency and ESA are planning a robotic lunar mission called Luna-27 in 2021, which will search for water ice beneath the south pole of the moon. Europe's major scientific contribution will be a miniature laboratory called PROSPECT (Package for Resource Observation and in-Situ Prospecting for Exploration, Commercial Exploitation and Transportation).

PROSPECT includes a robotic drill and several instruments that can probe beneath the moon's regolith, or soil. The equipment can also analyze samples of the moon on site, which has been done at Mars before — for example, on NASA's Curiosity mission.

An integral part of PROSPECT will be its capabilities to relay data back to Earth. An accompanying set of satellites — provided by Airbus' Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. — will relay information back to Earth. Such systems could be used to build out exploration on the moon for future far-side missions, Surrey exploration business line manager Nelly Offord said in the panel.

And partnerships won't just happen on the moon. NASA and ESA are in the early stages of planning a sample-return mission from Mars that will build upon the work of NASA's Perseverance rover, landing in February 2021, and the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars mission, landing in 2023, that will include the Rosalind Franklin rover. Both rovers are designed to search for signs of habitability, focusing on tasks such as characterizing organic molecules. Perseverance will also cache some promising core samples for a future mission to return to Earth later in the decade.

"Pooling resources [between agencies] could be just by pooling money; that would be one possibility of working together, and it would be a good possibility," Woerner said. "But the Mars sample return mission is much more than that."

The current sample-return plan calls for a NASA spacecraft to ferry the samples into Mars orbit, where a European spacecraft will take over and bring the precious cargo back to Earth, Woerner said. 

"One can see [exploration] is not only by pooling resources, it's by pooling capacities and capabilities," he added. "It's really the truth and the best idea to show that [agency] cooperation is an enabler. Competition is a driver, yes, but cooperation, this is the core of the Mars sample-return mission."

Collaborating with companies 

Representatives from Airbus (working on Artemis), Thales Alenia (ExoMars) and Leonardo (PROSPECT) also participated in the discussion, talking about how their commercial work will help bring space exploration forward into the 2030s and beyond.

"There is a chance here for young professionals to really design and build the future by doing things such as in situ resource utilization, or widespread robotization supported by artificial intelligence and wise use of data," Eleonora Zeminiani, who works in new initiatives for human exploration at Thales Alenia in Italy, said in the panel discussion.

"Space exploration is really a pillar in nurturing and sustaining industrial excellence," Zeminiani said. "It does so first by challenging and stimulating technological innovation, and also by pulling together the entire space ecosystem — from science and academia, to small and medium enterprises, to large system integrators and institutions. We believe that no one alone can master the huge effort required to sustain human presence in outer space."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: