Mars Rover Being Packed Into Storage After Russian Launch Scrapped

Mars Rover Being Packed Into Storage After Russian Launch Scrapped
A prototype of the ExoMars rover in Stevenage, England, in 2019. (Photo: Dan Kitwood, Getty Images)

The European Space Agency is scrambling to figure out the ExoMars rover’s next-possible launch window after the agency suspended cooperation with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover (named for the famous chemist) was slated to launch for the Red Planet in September. It is one half of the ExoMars program; the other half is a Mars orbiter that launched in 2016. Like the Perseverance rover, Rosalind Franklin will conduct an astrobiological search of Mars. But with the September launch called off, the rover’s components will now be stored in Italy until further notice.

“I hope that our Member States will decide that this is not the end of ExoMars, but rather a rebirth of the mission, perhaps serving as a trigger to develop more European autonomy,” said David Parker, director of Human and Robotic Exploration at the ESA, in an agency release.

The Rosalind Franklin rover was developed by ESA, but Roscosmos was providing the Proton rocket to launch the spacecraft, as well as the mission’s landing platform. The landing platform was to be a home base of sorts for the rover’s science experiments, and it would have taken measurements of Mars’ climate, atmosphere, and radiation levels.

A Roscosmos Proton rocket launches for Mars in 2016. (Photo: Stephane Corvaja/ESA, Getty Images)A Roscosmos Proton rocket launches for Mars in 2016. (Photo: Stephane Corvaja/ESA, Getty Images)

Though the Russian invasion interrupted the rover’s timeline, the Rosalind Franklin rover nonetheless had its systems review this month. The ESA review board confirmed that the spacecraft would have been ready for the September launch.

In a statement released earlier this month, ESA said that several proposals on how to proceed with the ExoMars mission without Russian involvement would be submitted in the weeks ahead. But the damage is effectively done when it comes to the rover’s timeline.

The rover’s development was previously delayed due to technical difficulties and the covid-19 pandemic. As the recent review revealed, technical issues had been resolved and, if not for the Ukraine invasion, another rover would soon be on its way to Mars.

Rosalind Franklin can do some things Perseverance cannot. It’s designed to be the first rover to drill over 1.98 m into the Martian soil, a feat not even NASA’s Mole was capable of. (The InSight lander tried valiantly to dig into the planet, but the Martian soil clumped in a way that made it impossible for the Mole probe to make progress.) So when Rosalind Franklin does get to Mars — fingers crossed — it will be breaking new ground.

A fast-track study to determine ExoMars’ next steps sans Russia is on the way; because launch windows to Mars depend on Earth’s proximity to the Red Planet, it will be at least a couple of years before the mission gets off the ground.

More: NASA and ESA Change Plans for Ambitious Mars Sample Return Mission