Space missions get scuppered for all kinds of reasons, from engineering problems to budget issues. But the ExoMars mission, Europe and Russia’s joint plan to send a rover to Mars, faced a complicated political and ethical issue when Russia invaded Ukraine last year. The European Space Agency (ESA) had been working with the Russian space agency Roscomos on the mission but this partnership was soon suspended over what ESA called the “human casualties and tragic consequences of the aggression towards Ukraine.”
Without Roscosmos, the Rosalind Franklin rover was left without a launcher and it was not clear whether the rover would be able to launch at all. But loath to give up on the project, ESA decided it would build its own lander and get the rover to Mars hopefully by 2030. This week, ESA shared more information about the plans for the mission and how it is continuing with testing for the rover.
While ESA estimates it will take at least three to four years to build a new lander, the rover itself has been close to ready for a long time. It was originally scheduled for launch in 2020 but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, then for launch in 2022 which was delayed due to the invasion of Ukraine. Now engineers are continuing to test the rover along with its twin, Amalia, recently putting it through a drilling test in a simulated martian environment.
The rover will dig nearly 6 feet down into the Martian surface, which is 25 times deeper than previous Mars missions have gone, to look for subsurface features like water ice. The recent tests used layers of soft silica, sand, and volcanic soil to simulate the martian soil and test whether the drill could be used to collect samples.
The twin rover was able to take a sample, use its imager to take close-up photos of the sample, and crush the sample into powder for scientific analysis. This test shows that the rover itself is looking in good shape, but the whole process of designing and building a lander for the rover still needs to be addressed.
In a video, ESA staff talk about the decision to suspend the mission and how they are adjusting to the new plan. “The war in Ukraine has had a massive impact on our work,” Pietro Baglioni, ExoMars Rover Manager, said in the video. “We were ready to go with the launch campaign for ExoMars, and we had all of a sudden to stop and to reconsider our plans.”
“For the team, it has been very difficult to digest this decision because they’ve been working very hard in the last years,” Baglioni went on. “It was indeed difficult also from a human perspective. But of course, they understand the political implications so they managed to reset.”