Long-delayed ExoMars mission still dreams of 2028 launch

War, budget cuts, a pandemic and a crash: For all its trials, Europe’s ExoMars mission might be more deserving of the name Perseverance than NASA’s Martian rover.

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However, the European Space Agency still has high hopes that the long-delayed mission to the Red Planet to search for extraterrestrial life will launch in 2028.

At this time last year, the ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover was all set for a September launch from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome. It planned to board a Russian rocket and board a Russian lander to descend to the surface of Mars.

After that, Russia withdrew from the mission and invaded Ukraine in March as a result of sanctions imposed by the 22 member states of the European Space Agency.

For the hundreds of scientists who have been working on the project for more than two decades, this was just the most recent setback.

The ambitious program, which was first thought of in 2001, quickly proved to be too expensive for Europe, which has yet to send a rover to Mars.

In 2009, NASA, the space agency of the United States, stepped in to close the funding gap. NASA, on the other hand, pulled out three years later due to budget cuts.

The following help arrived unexpectedly: Roscosmos, the space agency of Russia.

The Schiaparelli EDM module was launched in 2016 by Roscosmos and the European Space Agency as a test run for ExoMars.

However, a computer glitch caused Schiaparelli to crash into the surface of Mars and become silent when it got there.

The launch of the joint Russian-European ExoMars mission was postponed until July 2020 due to this failure.

That date was pushed back to 2022 by the Covid-19 pandemic, which was further pushed back by the invasion of Ukraine.

The ESA’s ministerial council reached an agreement late last year to fund the mission with 540 million euros ($500 million) over the course of three years after tangled Russian negotiations.

The ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, David Parker, stated last week that “that this is a unique piece of European science” was one of their reasons for continuing the mission.

He said, referring to the space telescope that has been sending back stunning images of far-off galaxies since 2022, “It’s like James Webb.”

But it’s for Mars; that’s how ambitious it is.

“This is the only planned mission that can actually find evidence of a previous life,” the statement reads.

However, there are still a lot of significant obstacles that could make a launch in 2028 difficult, such as the fact that the ESA needs a new way to land its rover on Mars.

The European Space Agency (ESA) will first need to recover European components from Russia’s Kazachok lander, which is still being assembled in Turin, Italy, and includes an onboard computer and radar altimeter.

However, the lander’s components can only be extracted by Russia.

The arrival of Russian specialists to dismantle the lander has been the subject of lengthy and difficult negotiations.

Thierry Blancquaert, the head of the ESA ExoMars program team, told AFP, “We expected them in mid-January, but they didn’t come.”

He continued, “We asked them to have everything done by the end of March.”

NASA’s assistance?
The new mission will need support from NASA to get off the ground, and so far, NASA has indicated that it is willing to assist.

The ESA hopes to utilize US engines for its new lander, which will be used to launch NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers onto the surface of Mars.

After losing access to Russia’s supply, it will also need radioisotope heater units from NASA. The spacecraft is kept warm by these units.

Although Blancquaert stated that “we are preparing the collaborative work together and things are progressing well,” NASA has not yet voted on a budget that would support such endeavors.

According to astrophysicist Francois Forget of France’s CNRS, “this new impetus for cooperation is linked to the fact that this time, the US has a joint project with Europe: Return of Mars Sample.”

Samples from both ExoMars and Perseverance, which landed on Mars in July 2021, will be brought back to Earth on the mission, which is scheduled for around 2030.

The Rosalind Franklin rover, in contrast to Perseverance, is able to drill down to two meters (6.5 feet) below the surface of Mars, where it might be easier to find evidence of ancient life.

Additionally, the location of the planned landing site for ExoMars is in a region of Mars that is thought to have been more hospitable to past life.

Forget stated, “We think there was a lot of water there.”

He added, “The mission will not be obsolete even in ten years because there is another Mars to explore.”

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