Coordination between countries in space exploration is widespread. However, sometimes that coordination falls apart. In most cases, that failure is due to budgetary constraints. But in more recent times, it is due to geopolitical ones. Specifically, western space agencies have begun to cut ties with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, on every program excluding the International Space Station, which is still operating normally. One of those project casualties is the timeline of the oft-delayed Exomars rover, Rosalind Franklin.
Originally developed in 2005, the Rosalind Franklin rover, which was named after a British chemist that helped discover DNA, was part of the ExoMars program and conceived as a cooperative arrangement between ESA and NASA. When NASA suffered a budget cut in 2012, the agency pulled out of the project, and Roscosmos, then on much friendlier terms with ESA, stepped in to fill the void both from a budgetary and a technological standpoint.
That wasn’t the end of the project’s bumpy road, though. Problems with the rover’s parachute pushed the initially scheduled launch date from 2018 to 2020 and then again to 2022. In September of this year, Rosalind Franklin was finally supposed to take to the skies onboard a Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which Russia controls.
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Unfortunately, Protons are not the only rockets Russia is currently flying. After the country invaded Ukraine late last month, western nations, including those comprising ESA, started ratcheting up the screw of sanctions on the space superpower. At an emergency meeting of ESA’s ruling council on March 16-17 in Paris. At this meeting, the agency officially suspended ties with Roscomos and directed Joseph Aschbacher, ESA’s Director General, to seek out alternative solutions for both Russian-supplied technology and Russian-supplied lift capabilities.
Those technologies ranged from the landing platform used to drop the rover onto the surface to radioisotope heaters that would be used to keep the rover’s instruments at reasonable temperatures during the Martian night. There is already some possibility to replace those components with European-made ones. Some had been tested on another ExoMars project – the Schiaparelli lander, which descended to the Red Planet’s surface in 2016 as part of the Trace Gas Orbiter mission.
If they can’t find a homegrown source, the first place ESA might look is back at their original partners for the mission. NASA had already reached out to the agency to “identify where [they] could help.” according to a statement by Aschbacher. But, if the war in Ukraine came to an end soon, ESA would be open to restarting its cooperation with Roscosmos.
David Parker, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, hinted at that possible re-engagement and provided some updated timelines for launch, stating “the possibility of restarting [cooperation with the Russians] at some future date is available and would be compatible with [a] launch in 2024.” He also stressed that, without Russian involvement, that launch date would more likely be 2026 or 2028.
Luckily, the rover can sit in storage in a cleanroom at a relatively low cost, at least compared to the $1.1 billion already spent on the project. Parker was quick to stress that the scientific aims of the mission can wait, stating that “…Mars is four and a half billion years old. So we just have to wait a few more years for it to reveal all of its secrets.”
Other missions might have to be tabled as well. ESA called out four other missions that need to find alternative launch arrangements, including two Galileo missions (M10 and M11), Euclid, and EarthCare. Some other alternatives might work, but the satellites themselves might have to be modified to fit a different launch platform, or they could potentially wait for the point where connections are reestablished. But, as of the time of writing, that doesn’t seem to be any time soon.
ESA – ExoMars suspended
SpaceNews – ESA suspends work with Russia on ExoMars mission
UT – Europe’s ExoMars Rover Will Likely Miss This Year’s Launch Window Because of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
UT – ExoMars Will be Drilling 1.7 Meters to Pull its Samples From Below the Surface of Mars
Artist’s depiction of the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover.
Credit – ESA / ATG Medialab