When it arrives on Mars, the ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover will join a growing fleet of robotic rovers, landers, and orbiters dedicated to searching for life on Mars. As part of the Exomars program, this mission was a collaborative effort between the ESA and the Russian State Space Corporation (Roscosmos). Whereas the ESA would provide the rover, Roscosmos was to provide the launch services and the Kazachok lander that would deliver Rosalind Franklin to the surface.
After many years of development, testing, and some delays, the Rosalind Franklin rover passed its System Qualification and Flight Acceptance Review in March. The Review Board confirmed that the rover was ready to be shipped to the launch site at Baikonur Cosmodrome and would make the launch window opening on September 20th, 2022. Unfortunately, due to the suspension of cooperation with Roscosmos, the ESA’s rover finds itself stranded on Earth for the time being.
The decision to suspend cooperation was reached by the ESA’s ruling Council, which met in Paris from March 16th to 17th to assess the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the effect this would have on inter-agency cooperation. The Council ruled unanimously, declaring that:
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- it was impossible, at present, to carry out the ongoing cooperation with Roscosmos on the ExoMars rover mission with a launch in 2022, and mandated that the ESA Director General take appropriate steps to suspend the cooperation activities accordingly;
- the ESA Director General was authorized to fast-track an industrial study to better define the available options for a way forward to implement the ExoMars rover mission.
With the 2022 launch suspended, the Exomars elements – the Rosalind Franklin rover, the spacecraft that will transport it to Mars, and the Carrier and Decent modules (CM/DM) – are being sent to a Thales Alenia Space storage site in Italy, where they will await further instruction. Based on the decision by the ESA Member States at the Council meeting, a fast-track industrial study will commence assessing all available options to make the Exomars 2022 mission happen in the near future.
In particular, the teams will be looking for the earliest possible launch opportunity depending on one of two scenarios. For the first, the ESA will attempt to develop all necessary technologies to support a Europea-led mission – i.e., launching from a member state using an ESA launch vehicle provider (such as Arianespace). In the second, the team will assess the possibility of launching with international partners and the availability of compatible launchers and a launch site.
David Parker, Director of Human and Robotic Exploration at ESA, conveyed an optimistic attitude about the future of the ExoMars program. Considering the time and effort the ESA had devoted to this mission, plus the valued contributions it will make to the ongoing exploration of Mars, the ESA is not about to abandon it. As he said in a recent ESA press release:
“I hope that our Member States will decide that this is not the end of ExoMars, but rather a rebirth of the mission, perhaps serving as a trigger to develop more European autonomy. We count on brilliant teams and expertise across Europe and with international partners to reshape and rebuild the mission. The team is dedicated and focused on setting out the next steps to ensure we bring this incredible rover to Mars to complete the job it was designed for.”
Among the cutting-edge instruments that the Rosland Franking rover will bring to the field are its advanced drill and internal laboratory. Whereas other rovers, like Opportunity, Curiosity, and Perseverance, have all drilled into the surface to obtain core samples, the Rosalind Franklin will be the first to drill 2 meters (6.56 feet) below the surface. It will also be the first to use novel driving techniques, including wheel-walking, to overcome obstacles.
In the meantime, the ESA still maintains a presence around Mars with the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), the orbital elements of the ExoMars 2016 mission. The TGO continues to relay most data from surface missions, such as NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers and the InSight lander. The TGO is also expected to play a vital role in the upcoming Mars Sample Return campaign – a joint NASA-ESA mission to return samples obtained by the Perseverance rover to Earth.
This disruption is one of many caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has resulted in widespread condemnation and sanctions by the international community. In response, Russia has terminated its cooperation with other space agencies and recently announced it was withdrawing from the International Space Station (ISS).
However, the ESA and other space agencies continue to cooperate to fulfill their shared vision of space exploration. Considering how beneficial the Rosalind Franklin rover will be to the ongoing search for life on Mars, it seems like a safe bet that the ESA (on its own or with the help of international partners) will ensure that it gets to Mars. After all, politics are so trivial compared to answering the fundamental questions about life in our Universe!
Further Reading: ESA