Europe postpones Mars mission over ExoMars rover issue and Coronavirus

ESA's ExoMars rover will roam the rusty Martian surface in search for signs of life. Credit: ESA

The European Space Agency (ESA) announced that its ExoMars rover would not fly this year. The mission, a collaboration with the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos), was set to launch this summer. However, the launch has been postponed to 2022 due to technical issues and the logistical impact due to the global Conoavirus outbreak.

“This is a very tough decision, but it’s, I’m sure, the right one,” ESA Director General Jan Wörner said during a news conference at ESA’s headquarters in Paris after consulting with the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin. “The parties had to recognise that the final phase of ExoMars activities are compromised by the general aggravation of the epidemiological situation in European countries.”

“We agreed together it’s better to go for success than just to go for launch at this time,” Wörner said. “Although we are close to launch readiness, we cannot cut corners. Launching this year would mean sacrificing remaining essential tests.”

The ExoMars rover is Europe’s first Mars rover. Named after Rosalind Franklin, a British pioneer of DNA science, the robotic explorer will search for signs of life on the red planet’s surface. Wörner said the agency needs more time to troubleshoot issues with the spacecraft’s parachute system as well as precise electronics, so the delay is necessary.

Also, the recent coronavirus outbreak that’s spreading around the globe isn’t helping. So instead of rushing, the team is taking the next two years to conduct extensive testing and make sure they get it right.

The ExoMars rover’s launch timeline. Credit: ESA

“We have made a difficult but well-weighed decision to postpone the launch to 2022,” Rogozin said in a statement. “I am confident that the steps that we and our European colleagues are taking to ensure mission success will be justified and will unquestionably bring solely positive results for the mission implementation.”

The ExoMars rover is a follow-on to ESA’s ExoMars Orbiter mission, which reached the red planet in 2016. That mission consisted of two parts: the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, a technology demonstrator. Unfortunately, the Schiaparelli crash-landed during its descent to the Martian surface.

Landing a spacecraft on Mars is hard. The planet’s atmosphere is thinner than what we see on Earth, and as such its takes a combination of sophisticated tools, including heat shields, retrorockets, and even giant, inflatable airbags, to safely touch down on the surface.

If anyone of those techniques fails, the spacecraft will crash, which is what happened with Schiaparelli.

Despite being around for decades, parachutes are still pretty tricky, especially using them on another planet. ESA engineers have made many adjustments to the parachute system, but keep seeing the same result: they rip as soon as they deploy. Test, after test, the chutes failed. Engineers have tried reinforcing them with Teflon to make them slide out of their bags easier, but no luck.

ESA even tried to seek advice from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which has built every single rover on Mars and, unfortunately needs more time to collaborate on parachute design. Because there’s only a limited window of launch opportunity, ESA officials decided to make the tough call to postpone until the next Mars window opens in 2022.

The rover and its launcher, a Russian Proton rocket, are ready to go. The agency has more parachute tests in the works, including high-altitude drops.

Additionally, Wörner said the team discovered issues with the descent module’s electronic equipment, which are essential to the mission’s success. This piece of equipment controls functions like spacecraft power, propulsion, and even parachute control.  It will take some time for the bugs to be fixed.

“Due to the troubleshooting of these anomalies at system level, the final version of the flight software has been delayed, and there is not enough time to fully test it before a 2020 launch and gain the confidence we need,” Wörner said.

You can technically launch to Mars anytime, but space agencies around the world choose specific windows that open every two years. During this time, Mars and Earth are in line, so that it takes less time and uses less fuel. In 2022, that window is open from August to October.

Once it reaches the Martian surface, the rover will study an ancient lake bed. It will scour the red planet’s surface in search of biosignatures, or signs of life.

Amy Thompson: I write about space, science, and future tech.
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