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Europe and Russia’s mission to Mars runs into a speed bump after two failed parachute tests

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There isn’t much time left until launch in 2020

Europe and Russia’s joint robotic mission to Mars has hit a snag after the parachutes needed for landing the spacecraft on the Red Planet failed in two back-to-back tests. There isn’t much time left to fix and test the issue before its scheduled launch in the summer of 2020. If the mission team cannot meet the 2020 deadline, they’ll have to wait until 2022 to try again.

The European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos, Russia’s national space corporation, have been working together for the last decade on this mission called ExoMars. The goal of the two-phase program is to send a series of spacecraft to Mars to search for signs of life, either from above the planet or from its surface. The first phase occurred in 2016 when the organizations sent two vehicles to Mars: one to orbit the planet and sniff out gases in the atmosphere that might come from life, and the other was a lander to test out the technologies needed to put heavy equipment on the planet’s surface. The second phase will send a robotic rover, which is named after famed English chemist Rosalind Franklin, to Mars to drill into the surface and look for signs of life.

ExoMars’ first phase was a partial success. The orbiter maneuvered into Mars’ orbit as planned, and the spacecraft is still whizzing around the planet collecting data. The lander, on the other hand, had a rough descent. During its fall to the surface, the spacecraft’s sensors got some bad data and accidentally released the vehicle’s parachute too early. As a result, the lander didn’t slow down enough and slammed into the surface.

Now, ESA and Roscosmos are hoping to use the lessons learned from that ill-fated dress rehearsal to pull off the second phase of ExoMars. But it seems that ESA is still having a hard time mastering the landing process. The space agency recently detailed how the last two landing tests are done in preparation for the rovers’ descent caused damage to the main parachutes, even after changes were made to prevent harm to the hardware.

The ExoMars parachute sequence for the Rosalind Franklin rover.
Image: ESA

To touch down on Mars, the Rosalind Franklin rover is meant to ride down to the surface inside a landing platform called Kazachok, while a series of four parachutes deploy to slow the vehicles’ fall. Testing out this deployment process entails dropping test vehicles from super high altitudes here on Earth to see how the chutes might perform on Mars. On May 28th, ESA and Roscosmos conducted the first test of the entire parachute sequence by dropping payloads from a stratospheric helium balloon. While everything deployed as expected, the final two main parachutes were torn as they inflated. The mission teams implemented upgrades and tried again during another test on August 5th, but one of the main parachutes still endured damage.

ESA and Roscosmos are trying to figure out what happened based on data gathered during the tests. In the meantime, ExoMars’ second phase is still scheduled to launch sometime between July 25th and August 13th, 2020, on a Russian Proton rocket. Before that happens, the mission team plans to do two additional high-altitude parachute tests. They are considering making more hardware to do additional models and simulations. ESA also plans to have a bunch of “Mars parachute specialists” gather in September to come up with some ideas.

The second half of ExoMars has already been delayed once after missing its first intended launch date in 2018. If it misses the 2020 launch window, the next opportunity to fly will be in 2022 when Earth and Mars make their closest approach to one another. That’s the ideal time to send a vehicle to the Red Planet, making the trip less than a year long. And ESA says there is no room for error if it’s going to make it to the launchpad in 2020.

“We are committed to fly a safe descent and landing system and will work very hard to attempt a timely qualification of this parachute system before launching in July 2020,” a spokesperson for ESA said in a statement to The Verge. “There is of course no margin for one further failure any longer.”