Enlarge /. The Rosalind Franklin Rover after environmental tests.
On Thursday, the European Space Agency and its Russian partners announced that they would move their planned rover / lander mission to Mars. As we reported earlier this year, the project faced a number of technical hurdles and time was short to resolve before a practical launch window for Mars was closed. Now travel restrictions that have been introduced to limit the spread of the coronavirus have ensured that they are not treated in time.
Life on Mars?
The project, called ExoMars, is ambitious and is designed to help determine if there has ever been life on the red planet. It will include a surface platform built in Russia that includes weather instruments and the ability to monitor the exchange of volatile chemicals between the Martian atmosphere and its surface. But the star of the show would be ESA's first rover on Mars, the Rosalind Franklin (named after a scientist who helped determine DNA structure).
The main feature of the rover is the ability to drill two meters below the surface of Mars, a depth at which liquid water is more likely to be and which is somewhat protected from the harsh radiation bathing the surface of Mars.
To get all of this to the surface, however, a complicated landing system is required, and two sets of parachutes would be used for the ExoMars mission. Unfortunately, technical problems with this system had become apparent through several failed tests, and other problems with the hardware involved were identified.
While these types of problems are not uncommon (see, for example, the James Webb telescope), the trip to Mars increases the time pressure. There are times when the orbits of Earth and Mars put the planets in a configuration that significantly reduces travel time. If the problems were not resolved quickly enough, the planned launch window would not be available and the mission would have to be postponed until 2022.
To clarify the possibilities, representatives of ESA and Roscosmos have scheduled a meeting today to set the final schedule.
The agencies announced that ground-based parachute tests were successful, and a high-altitude drop test was due to take place later this month. All scientific instruments were integrated into the lander and rover, and tests were also carried out on the relegation module.
Despite these advances, Roscosmos director general Dmitry Rogozin said that something new and unexpected had discarded the entire schedule: the corona virus. The mission would have to be postponed due to "the circumstances surrounding the worsening of the epidemiological situation in Europe, which left our experts with practically no opportunity to travel to partner industries".
Enlarge /. The revised Exomars timeline, including a previous orbital mission.
His partner, ESA Director General Jan Wörner, sounded almost relieved at the extra time to test the delay. "We want to be 100 percent sure of a successful mission," he said in a statement. "We cannot afford an error rate. Further verification activities ensure a safe journey and the best scientific results on Mars."
The revised schedule provides for a start between August and October 2022. The landing is scheduled for the following year.