ExoMars has opened a new chapter in the European space exploration, which under the right economic conditions may lead the first human expedition to head for Mars in two decades, Italian Space Agency (ASI) scientific coordinator Enrico Flamini said in a recent interview.
Italy has played a key role in the ExoMars mission, the first phase of which began on Monday after a rocket carrying scientific equipment lifted off from Kazakhstan. ExoMars is a large mission to search for biosignatures of Martian life. The European Space Agency and the Russian space agency Roscosmos collaborated on the mission.
Flamini defined the mission as "mainly technological with a high scientific value." The technology, he elaborated, is in landing on Mars, while science is in searching possible forms of life or environments conducive to life.
As the third country in the world to put its own satellite in orbit in 1964, Italy has an ancient tradition in space exploitation. The Mediterranean country has a considerable part of the habitable volume of the International Space Station (ISS) and strong technological know-how as regards the instruments to sample and analyze minerals. ASI, though small, is a leading space agency, Flamini told Xinhua.
Thanks to the strong cultural roots of Italy "that open the mind and nourish imagination" and the country's strong higher education system, the result is that ASI is the main contributor to the ExoMars project with around 380 million euros (422.10 million U.S. dollars), or 36 percent of the combined cost of the project's two phases, he said.
The probe, expected to reach Mars in October, is made up of a trace gas orbiter that will map evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases as possible signatures of active biological or geological processes. It also contains a small entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, named as Schiaparelli after the 19th-century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, that will put a rover on the Mars' surface in the second phase of the project in 2018.
The first two delicate moments in the mission, the launch and the separation from the last stage of the rocket, have been carried out successfully. "The most critical activity will begin in October when the Schiaparelli module will separate and land on Mars, because for a few minutes the operations will be entirely automatic and we will not able to follow them," Flamini said.
He underlined that the accurate high-resolution maps of the planet provided by ExoMars will help future missions to study the Red Planet and bring mineral samples back to Earth in anticipation of future human expeditions.
But when will man be able to land on Mars? "We first need to fill some technological gap, that is to say we need to demonstrate precision landing and then, through sample return, the ability to come back from Mars. These elements are already being tested but must be improved," Flamini noted. According to the scientist, so far Americans have devised a quite precise landing system, while Europeans are particularly strong at avoiding obstacles.
But the economic factor is also fundamental, Flamini highlighted. "If the economic conditions will allow us during the next 10 years to continue to work on these technologies, I think that in the second half of 2030s mankind could be able to attempt landing on Mars," he said.
Mars landing by manned spacecraft makes imagination soar. There is a scientific-philosophical objective to find out whether life exists or would be possible on Mars, Flamini said, but the idea of permanent settlements, which are able to provide materials that should be present on Mars and become scarce on Earth, is also an important goal.
And in the faraway future, which could happen many generations ahead, once man will be able to travel faster through space, mankind may also think to move and colonize other planets to cope with the Earth's problems, he added.
However, in his view, all of this can only be possible with a global effort. "Neither Europe, nor the United States, nor China have sufficient background and expertise to carry out such a program alone. We have to find a way to fulfill such a complex mission all together, as it happened with the ISS some 20 years ago, because this is a program of humankind, not of a single nation," he underlined.
Besides collaborating with the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, with which Italy is in talks on a possible joint asteroid mission, Italy also has "excellent relations" with the China National Space Administration (CNSA), Flamini said.
For example, Italian and Chinese researchers have been working together since 2004 to develop the instruments on board the CSES mission (China Seismo-Electromagnetic Satellite) which will study the phenomena of an electromagnetic nature.
Flamini wished that cooperation with China could be strengthened in the global space industry, because "China, with its developed technology and extraordinary productive system, has all the economic and technological preconditions to be a protagonist of what will likely be the most complex adventure of humankind in this century."