The ExoMars rover mission has been delayed until 2022, ending hopes of a launch this summer.
The European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency said in a message posted on Thursday, March 12, that it needs more time to complete all of the necessary tests on its spacecraft and related equipment. For example, it wants to perform additional testing on the all-important parachutes designed to slow the descent of the rover as it enters Mars’ atmosphere at speeds of up to 13,000 mph. Several other issues with hardware and software also need to be resolved.
Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus is also impacting preparations “because people from different places of industry in Russia, in Italy, and France cannot move easily as in the past,” ESA director general Jan Wörner told reporters this week.
This is the second major delay in the project’s lifetime after the originally planned 2018 launch date slipped to 2020 due to various issues.
Similar to NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 mission, the ExoMars mission goals include finding out if life of some form or another ever existed on Mars, and to better understand the history of water on the Red Planet. The ExoMars rover (below) — named Rosalind Franklin after the pioneering DNA scientist — includes a miniature life-search laboratory and a drill to access the sub-surface of Mars.
A revised timeline (below) from ESA and Roscosmos shows a planned launch window from August through October 2022, with the rover arriving on the Martian surface between April and July 2023.
Roscosmos director general Dmitry Rogozin said in a statement that the decision to postpone the mission by two years was “difficult but well-weighed,” while Wörner commented: “We want to make ourselves 100% sure of a successful mission. We cannot allow ourselves any margin of error. More verification activities will ensure a safe trip and the best scientific results on Mars.”
Counterparts from across the pond expressed understanding, with NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen, for one, calling it a “tough decision” considering the complex challenges presented by such a mission, adding that the team was “inspiring everyone to do hard things.”
When it finally reaches Mars, the rover will join the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which has been performing scientific research since entering Mars’ orbit in October 2016, and which will also function as a communication link for the ExoMars rover when it finally arrives. It’s perhaps worth noting that the TGO mission’s Schiaparelli lander crashed on the Martian surface after a sensor malfunction during descent in 2016, an incident that is no doubt at the forefront of the minds of the current ESA/Roscosmos team.