A joint mission by Europe and Russia to land a rover on Mars has been officially suspended because of the Ukraine invasion, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced, following a vote by ESA member states. The decision also represents a big setback to Europe’s space program, which will have to figure out the best way forward.
The ExoMars mission was supposed to use a Russian launcher in September to send a European rover to look for signs of life on Mars. However, the ESA said the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia had forced it to stop cooperation and look for an alternative way to launch the rover and four other missions using the Russian rocket.
“The decision was made that this launch cannot happen, given the current circumstances and especially the sanctions that are imposed by our member states,” director general Josef Aschbacher said in a statement. “This makes it practically impossible, but also politically impossible to have a launch in September.”
The rover, named Rosalind Franklin, was assembled in the UK for a planned launch on the Russian rocket. Instead, it will now be placed in storage until a solution can be found. The next available launch window will be in two years, based on the alignment of the Earth and Mars (launches from Earth to Mars currently require the two planets to be closeby). But it’s impossible to predict what the political scenario will be like in two years.
A two-part program
The launch of the rover is the second stage in a two-part space program with Russia. The first part was a satellite that launched to the Red Planet in 2016 and is now studying the planet’s atmosphere. It was supposed to be used as a telecommunications relay platform for the Rosalind Franklin rover when it arrived.
The suspension means the ESA will now have to find a new rocket and a new lander. A non-Russian rocket could be found for a 2024 launch, but sourcing Western hardware to place the rover on the surface of Mars won’t be straightforward. Building a descent and landing system would probably take more than two years to be ready.
For now, the ESA has commissioned a feasibility study of how to get the rover off the ground without Russian involvement. One option would be working with NASA, which has expressed “strong willingness to support” the mission, Aschbacher said. The rover should remain viable for years in storage, but this will likely add more costs to the mission.
Five other satellite missions that were expected to be launched by a Russian rocket were canceled after the decision by Russia to withdraw its personnel from an EU spaceport in French Guiana. Aschbacher said the situation aboard the International Space Station, home to two Russians, four Americans and one German, has remained stable so far.