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European Space Agency claims joint Russian Mars rover probably won’t launch this year

Russia’s invasion on Earth continues to affect space

An artistic rendering of the Rosalind Franklin rover on Mars.
Image: ESA

A joint Russian-European mission to Mars will likely be delayed in light of new sanctions against Russia and the country’s ongoing assault of Ukraine. The delay is the latest space partnership to feel the side effects of Russia’s invasion here on Earth.

Known as ExoMars, the mission entails sending a series of robotic spacecraft to Mars, culminating in the launch of a robotic rover to explore the Red Planet’s surface. The European Space Agency and Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos have been working together on the program for the last decade. As part of the initiative, ESA and Roscosmos launched the first phase of the mission in 2016, sending a spacecraft to orbit Mars and sniff out its atmosphere, as well as a test lander to demonstrate the capabilities needed to land on the Martian surface. While the orbiter successfully began its mission orbiting Mars, the test lander crashed due to a software glitch.

Still, ESA and Roscosmos continued to push forward with the second phase of the mission: launching a Mars rover that has since been dubbed the Rosalind Franklin rover, after the British chemist whose work led to the discovery of DNA’s structure. The rover’s launch was tentatively planned for this summer, but ESA is now casting doubt on that timeline. “Regarding the ExoMars programme continuation, the sanctions and the wider context make a launch in 2022 very unlikely,” ESA wrote in an update on its website. “ESA’s Director General will analyse all the options and prepare a formal decision on the way forward by ESA Member States.”

Both ESA and Roscosmos are providing crucial elements for the rover’s mission. The Rosalind Franklin rover has been built and tested by ESA, designed to drill into the Martian terrain and look for signs of life. Russia is providing the landing element that will help get the rover to the surface, known as the Kazachok lander. The entire mission is meant to launch on a Russian Proton rocket as well.

Along with the United States, the European Union announced a list of new restrictive sanctions against Russia following the Ukraine invasion. The sanctions cover areas of finance, energy, transport, technology, and visa policy, according to the European Union. ESA noted that it was complying with the sanctions.

“We are fully implementing sanctions imposed on Russia by our Member States,” ESA wrote in its update. “We are assessing the consequences on each of our ongoing programmes conducted in cooperation with the Russian state space agency Roscosmos and align our decisions to the decisions of our Member States in close coordination with industrial and international partners (in particular with NASA on the International Space Station).”

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, provided a quick response on Twitter to ESA’s update, claiming that ESA “decided to freeze off her ears” to spite their Russian grandmother, according to Google Translate. (That’s a Russian expression roughly equivalent to “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”)

The news comes after Russia announced that it would be suspending launches of its Soyuz rocket from Europe’s primary spaceport in French Guiana, South America, in light of the sanctions. European launch provider Arianespace had an agreement with Roscosmos to use the Soyuz to launch satellites out of French Guiana or the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. As part of the decision, Russia said it would withdraw 87 of its staff members working at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou on upcoming launches. Russia also announced plans to exclude NASA from a joint mission to Venus the two organizations had been working on. However, Roscosmos and NASA are still working together to maintain the International Space Station.

The most recent delay for ExoMars is the latest in a long line of delays for the mission. The rover was originally supposed to launch as early as 2018, but was pushed back because equipment wasn’t ready in time. A planned launch in 2020 was also delayed to allow for more time to test the vehicle’s parachutes, which are crucial to landing the vehicle on Mars’ surface. If ExoMars doesn’t launch this year, its next opportunity won’t be for another two years, when Earth and Mars are closest together on their orbits around the Sun again.