What’s next for ExoMars?

Rosalind Franklin (Source: ESA)

Following Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine, the European Space Agency has ceased cooperation with Roscosmos. And now, Europe’s first mission to put a rover on Mars is on hold.

Mars is no stranger to human intervention on its soil. Since the 1960s, the red planet has witnessed several robotic explorations led by various nations, such as the US and Japan. These missions’ primary goals have mostly focused on the characteristics Mars shares with Earth, and if the Martian soil has ever hosted life.

Today, the curiosity and questions surrounding our neighbouring planet has only increased as we uncovered more of the planet with advanced technologies over the years. Many rovers and even crewed missions are in the plans to land on and explore the red planet. Continuing this search for evidence of past life on Mars is ExoMars, a two-part mission by the European Space Agency (ESA).

Trace Gas Orbiter (Source: ESA)

First launched in March of 2016, the first part of the mission, ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter, searches for traces of life on Mars following previous missions that have discovered methane in the atmosphere. In order to pick up on methane and other trace atmospheric gas, the Trace Gas Orbiter has been equipped with precision tools with a much higher sensitivity than any previous or current mission at Mars. This will give an insight to possible evidence of active biological or geological processes taking place on the red planet.

The second part of the mission, ExoMars 2020, will involve sending a rover named Rosalind Franklin to conduct exobiology and geochemistry research on the red planet. The research will be supported by the rover’s ability to drill and collect samples from up to two meters below the surface.

Components making up Rosalind Franklin (Source: ESA)

Unfortunately, political tensions and turmoil has halted the launch of ExoMars 2020 that was due in September of 2022 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The partnership between the two space agencies meant that certain elements of the mission were provided by Russia, including the Proton rocket for launching the rover, the Kazachok landing platform and Russian-made rover components, such as the radioisotope heating units.

However, the Russian-led invasion of Ukraine had caused strain in the relationship between Russia and many other nations. Although sanctions were imposed on Russia not just by ESA’s member states but internationally as well, ESA still held out hope for their space programmes to continue as planned. When Russia, on the other hand, suspended cooperation with Europe on Soyuz launches from the European spaceport in French Guiana, ESA decided to cease partnership with Russia on the ExoMars expedition. In fact, ESA stated that they are assessing all of their programmes conducted in cooperation with Roscosmos and fully implementing sanctions on Russia.

This change in plans have pushed ESA to look to substitute Russia’s involvement in the ExoMars mission and a new alliance seems to be brewing between ESA and NASA. According to ESA Director-General Josef Aschbacher, “NASA has expressed its very strong willingness to support us”.

Rosalind Franklin (Source: ESA)

Although the shift in partnership to revive ExoMars will have the mission launching, it may not be anytime soon. The changes in launch vehicles, landing platform and the making of other rover components will need to be accommodated and a 2028 launch seems to be a realistic goal, according to Aschbacher.

But 2028 comes with its own set of challenges. ESA will have to work the trajectory of the mission around the dust storm season at their preferred landing site. Moreover, 2028 will have ExoMars launching at the same time as the two landers for the revised Mars Sample Return (MSR) project that both NASA and ESA are conducting together. The possibility of joint launches have led to speculations that Rosalind Franklin could support the MSR project as well.

Regardless of all the obstacles in place, we hope that mission ExoMars will be a success for the space research community and that Rosalind Franklin will be able to carry out its mission to widen our understanding of our red neighbour, Mars.

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