MarcoPolo axed once again as ESA shies away from planetary projects

18 Mar 2015

The third incarnation of MarcoPolo, a project to retrieve a sample from an asteroid and bring it back to Earth for testing, has been rejected by the European Space Agency (ESA).

ESA is entertaining ideas for one of its future “medium-class” missions, meaning one that costs less than €1bn, but it’s thought all planetary projects proposed have been turned down.

It’s a crushing blow to the team behind MarcoPolo, which has now missed out on four missions in total.

That leaves Europe lagging behind Japan and the US regarding similar missions, with the Hayabusa 2 mission already hunting down an asteroid to collect rock and Osiris-Rex mission heading off next year to do something similar.

The latter mission (of US space agency NASA) is targeting a “carbon-rich” asteroid called Bennu, which could potentially hit Earth by the end of the next century.

The Osiris-Rex mission is to launch in September next year and hopes to spend more than a year at Bennu before returning to Earth with samples at the end of its 18-year project.

Osiris mission

Illustration of NASA’s Osiris-Rex mission, heading for Bennu next year. Image via NASA

The MarcoPolo consortium’s Dr Ian Franchi claims a project such as the one proposed would provide “mind-blowing” research, equating it to far higher significance than the recently successful Rosetta project, which saw Philae land on comet 67P and send back a few hours worth of readings.

“Sample return is the future of planetary science,” he told the BBC. “What you can do in an Earth lab, even with a few grams, is mind-blowing.

“Look at what we’ve done with Rosetta and Philae at comet 67P. That is amazing science, but if we could bring samples back to Earth, it would be like adding several zeroes to that science,” he said.

It is thought that cost is what held MarcoPolo’s latest incarnation, MarcoPolo-2D, back. Those behind the failed bid had even proposed a joint mission with China, which would see the Asian state supply the rocket and spacecraft, while Europe would be behind the “lander and sample-grabbing and encapsulating technology”.

“It’s very difficult to do a planetary mission that’s of scientific value within the very strict cost cap of M4,” said Dr Franchi.

“In that sense, ESA may have failed the community by setting a boundary that made it impossible for a planetary proposal to succeed.”

Asteroid image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic