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European-Russian Mars Mission Delayed to 2022 Over Coronavirus and Tests

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A European-Russian mission to put a rover on Mars and look for signs of life there has been postponed, to 2022.

Most parts of the mission, including the rocket and the rover, named Rosalind Franklin, are ready. But not enough time remains to complete tests of the parachutes and fix issues with an electronics module, before the launch opportunity in July.

“We could launch, but that would mean we are not doing all the tests,” Jan Woerner, the director general of the European Space Agency, said during a news conference on Thursday morning where the decision was announced. “We cannot really cut corners.”

The coronavirus pandemic played a role in the decision. Dimitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s space agency, said that “force majeure circumstances related to exacerbation of the epidemiological situation in Europe” would leave mission staff from both countries unable to travel.

The positions of Mars and Earth line up every 26 months, allowing a relatively quick trip. Missing that alignment means that the mission will stay on the ground until 2022.

The ExoMars program has persisted through more than a decade of starts and stops and shifts in plans. Originally, it was a collaboration between the European Space Agency and NASA, with NASA providing the rockets and the landing system, similar to what was used to put NASA’s Curiosity rover on Martian ground in 2012.

But in February 2012, the Obama administration pulled out of the plans, partly to pay for delays and cost overruns with the James Webb Space Telescope. The Europeans then turned to Russia. The first half of the ExoMars program, the Trace Gas Orbiter, launched in March 2016 on a Russian Proton rocket. It entered orbit around Mars seven months later and continues to operate.

But an accompanying lander, Schiaparelli, crashed after a sensor error caused the spacecraft to jettison its parachute too early because it thought it was already on the ground instead of still two miles in the air.

The ExoMars rover, which will use a different landing system, designed by the Russians, was originally scheduled to launch in 2018, but that launch window was missed, because of delays in the completion of the spacecraft and the instruments.

The parachutes, needed to slow the spacecraft, which consists of a European lander and Russian platform, as it enters the Martian atmosphere, failed in tests last year. With NASA’s help, the system was redesigned.

With the new delay, the spacecraft will be put in storage once it is completed.

Other missions to Mars scheduled to launch this year appear to be on track: a NASA rover, Perseverance; a Chinese rover; and an orbiter from the United Arab Emirates called Hope.


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