ESA wants member states to pay for €1 billion of the total cost of its ExoMars rover and hopes to cover the remaining €200 million through cooperation with the US and Russia (Illustration: ESA)
European nations met on Tuesday to decide how to carve up €10 billion of spending needed to maintain the region's activities in space and tackle new initiatives amid rising pressure on budgets.
Science ministers from the 18 members of the European Space Agency and Canada meet every three years to agree on funds for the agency, which is beefing up ambitions in exploration to catch up with attention-grabbing initiatives from China and India.
The agency's €10.4 billion funding request comes in the midst of a financial crisis and fears of recession but is likely to be almost entirely approved by politicians, officials said.
However, nations were expected to haggle over their share of key projects before issuing a final breakdown on Wednesday.
"Ministers were very positive," ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain told a news conference after the first of day of talks. "Some said that we have to go against the economic cycle and that this is the best time to invest in space."
ESA's €3 billion annual budget is dwarfed by NASA's, which is more than €13 billion ($17 billion). Europe also faces pressure from new space powers such as China, which recently performed a spacewalk, and India, which has sent a probe to the Moon and hopes to begin launching human missions.
Key ESA projects include a €1.2 billion expanded version of an existing project called ExoMars to land a rover on the surface of Mars and drill down 2 metres into the soil to take soundings. The cost has roughly doubled since an earlier plan.
"It is more complex as a mission and more expensive. We are asking for more money but it is worth more," said ESA spokesman Franco Bonacina.
ESA wants member states to pay for €1 billion of the total cost and hopes to cover the remaining €200 million through cooperation with the US and Russia.
Other proposals submitted by ESA include a request for funds to study the development of an unmanned re-entry vehicle dubbed ARV to bring cargo back from the International Space Station. The move is needed as the US space shuttle nears retirement.
Passing the hat
Europe sent up its first one-way re-supply vehicle - known as ATV - to the 10-year-old structure in March, but unlike the ATV, which burns up on re-entry, the ARV would land safely.
About a third of ESA's €3 billion annual budget comprises mandatory spending on the agency's scientific projects, such as Europe's share of the Hubble Space Telescope.
The rest must be paid for by passing the hat around between nations at the ESA conference table. Dordain said ministers had not yet agreed on spending for the International Space Station.
New ESA projects also include a bid to help prevent costly satellites from being destroyed by space debris.
The mounting cloud of debris in orbit poses a threat to infrastructure from telecommunications satellites to the International Space Station.
Europe relies on data from US military early warning command NORAD to dodge millions of pieces of debris that is large enough to track. But ESA has been charged with developing Europe's own security measures in cooperation with the European Union.
ESA also wants to develop a geostationary satellite called the European Data Relay Satellite that could beam data from satellites, rockets and planes back to the ground more quickly.
Both systems are designed for civil use but will use technology that could ultimately have applications in defence.
In a massive commercial project that could also have security implications, ESA is partly responsible for developing the Galileo navigation system - a rival system to the US Global Positioning System - on behalf the European Commission.