The long-delayed ExoMars mission is still dreaming of a 2028 launch

War, budget cuts, pandemic and accident: For all its trials, Europe’s ExoMars mission may be more deserving of the name Endurance than NASA’s Martian rover.

But the European Space Agency still hopes the long-sought mission to search for extraterrestrial life on the Red Planet can be launched in 2028.

This time last year, ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover was poised for a September launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, planning to hitch a ride on a Russian rocket and down to the Martian surface on a Russian lander.

Then Moscow invaded Ukraine in March, and due to sanctions imposed by the 22 member states of the ESA, Russia withdrew and the mission was suspended.

It was just the latest blow to the hundreds of scientists who have been working on the project for more than two decades.

First conceived in 2001, the ambitious program quickly proved too expensive for Europe, which has yet to land a rover on Mars.

The US space agency NASA stepped in to fill the funding gap in 2009. But three years later, NASA resigned due to budget cuts.

Help then came from an unexpected source: the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

Together, the ESA and Roscosmos launched the Schiaparelli EDM module in 2016 as a test run for ExoMars.

But when Schiaparelli arrived at Mars, a computer glitch caused him to crash into the surface and fall silent.

That failure pushed back the launch of the joint Russian-European ExoMars mission to July 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic pushed that date back to 2022, when it was delayed again due to the invasion of Ukraine.

– Russia’s difficult negotiations –

Late last year, the ESA’s ministerial council agreed to keep the mission alive with an injection of 500 million euros ($540 million) over the next three years.

David Parker, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, said last week that one of the arguments they put forward to continue the mission was that “this is a uniquely European piece of science.

“It’s like James Webb,” he said referring to the space telescope that has been sending back amazing images of distant galaxies since 2022.

“But it’s for Mars – it’s that scale of ambition.

“This is the only mission that is expected to actually find evidence of the past.”

But there are still some significant obstacles that could make a 2028 launch difficult – including that ESA needs a new way to land its rover on Mars.

ESA will first have to retrieve European components, including an on-board computer and radar altimeter, from Russia’s Kazachok lander, which remains at its assembly site in Turin, Italy.

However only Russia can remove the components from the lander.

Difficult negotiations are underway with Russian experts coming to dismantle the lander.

“We expected them in mid-January, but they didn’t come,” ESA’s ExoMars program team leader Thierry Blancquaert told AFP.

“We asked them to have everything done by the end of March,” he said.

– NASA to the rescue? –

To get off the ground, the new mission will rely on support from NASA, which has so far shown its willingness to help.

For its new lander, the ESA hopes to take advantage of the US engines used to put NASA’s Curiosity and Endurance rovers on Mars’ surface.

It will also have to rely on NASA for radioisotope heater units, having lost access to the Russian supply. These units keep the spacecraft warm.

NASA has not yet voted on a budget that would support such efforts, but “we are preparing the collaborative work together and things are progressing well,” said Blancquaert.

Francois Forget, an astrophysicist at France’s CNRS scientific research center, said that “this new impetus for cooperation is linked to the fact that the US has a joint project with Europe this time: the Mars Sample Return.”

The mission, planned for around 2030, is intended to return to Mars samples collected by ExoMars and Perseverance, which came into contact with the planet in July 2021.

Unlike Persistence, the Rosalind Franklin rover can drill up to two meters (6.5 feet) below the surface of Mars, where traces of possible ancient life could be better preserved.

The planned ExoMars landing site is also in an area of ​​Mars that is expected to be more favorable for hosting past life.

“We think there was a lot of water there,” said Forget.

“There is another Mars to explore, so even in 10 years the mission will not be obsolete,” he said.


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