Europe and Russia have decided to push back the launch of their joint robotic rover to Mars until 2022, rather than launch this year as originally planned. More testing is needed on the vehicle’s parachutes ahead of the launch, according to the European Space Agency (ESA), and there isn’t enough time to get all of that work done before the launch window in July and August.
“We have together accepted the advice that launching this year would mean sacrificing essential remaining tests,” Jan Wörner, the director general of ESA, said during a press conference. “This is a very tough decision, but it’s, I’m sure, the right one,” he added.
This is the second major delay for the rover, which is a critical piece of the ExoMars mission — a partnership program between ESA and Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos aimed at figuring out if Mars ever hosted life. Originally, the rover, named after the famous chemist Rosalind Franklin, was meant to launch in 2018, but it was pushed until 2020 due to delays in delivering the scientific payloads. Now, the parachutes needed to land the vehicle on Mars are to blame. Last year, two high-altitude drop tests here on Earth damaged the parachutes, with some even tearing while they inflated. ESA wants to do two additional parachute tests ahead of the mission, but they won’t occur in time to allow a summer launch to happen.
“This will be a little bit later than we hoped we would get it, but obviously, until these tests are successful, we have remaining risk,” Wörner said.
Additionally, some of the electronics inside the vehicle that carries the rover down to the surface need to be returned to their suppliers for troubleshooting. The final software for the mission is also delayed, and engineers don’t have enough time to test it out before the summer. And if that wasn’t enough, Wörner admitted that the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic is playing a role in the delay.
“To say coronavirus is the one and only reason, that would be not at all fair,” Wörner said. “But of course, now in this situation, we see that the coronavirus has also an impact on the preparation. Because people from different places of industry in Russia, in Italy, and France cannot move easily as in the past.”
Now, the earliest option to launch the Rosalind Franklin rover is 2022, thanks to how Earth and Mars orbit the Sun. The two planets only skim close by one another every 26 months, giving scientists a limited window to launch spacecraft to the Red Planet. With a launch window opening up this summer, multiple countries including the US, China, and the United Arab Emirates are launching spacecraft to Mars. But since ExoMars cannot make the deadline, the next opportunity to launch is between August and October 2022.
The launch of the Rosalind Franklin rover is the second phase of the ExoMars program. The first happened in 2016, with the launch of a lander and a spacecraft designed to orbit around the Red Planet and sniff for gases that might be coming from life on the ground. That mission turned out to be a partial success; the orbiter got into Mars’ orbit as expected, but the lander slammed into the ground, thanks to a glitch that threw off the landing sequence.
Fortunately, the lander that crashed was really just a test vehicle meant to demonstrate the technologies needed for this second phase of ExoMars. But the lander’s demise illustrates that getting equipment onto Mars in one piece is an incredibly difficult task requiring as much planning and preparation as possible. And the Rosalind Franklin rover absolutely must touch down gently on the surface of the planet in order to perform correctly.
While ESA and Roscosmos wait for 2022, the rover will go into storage, and engineers will lubricate the vehicle over the next two years to maintain all of its components. In the meantime, the Russian Proton rocket that will launch the rover and the vehicle’s European carrier spacecraft are all ready to go and have no issues. So the Rosalind Franklin rover should be ready to go by 2022 if the upcoming tests go well.
“Of course it’s a huge disappointment to each and everyone — to the scientists, to the teams, to the engineers, and also to myself, because the teams have been working so hard to make the 2020 launch,” Wörner said, noting that people had been working extra shifts this last month to meet the upcoming deadline. “But instead now to share the disappointment and scream and cry, we are looking forward to make the launch in 2022 possible.”