This year was supposed to be another landmark one for Mars exploration with the launch of the European Space Agency (ESA)’s robot rover to the red planet. But now, the mission has to be postponed as a result of the war in Ukraine and heavy sanctions on Russia, which owns the spaceport in Kazakhstan from which the rover was supposed to be launched.
The rover, known as Rosalind Franklin, named after the British chemist and DNA pioneer, is part of the ExoMars program, which also includes the Trace Gas Orbiter launched in 2016. Like NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, the goal of the mission is to search for signs of past life on Mars, which is believed to have been a rich water world billions of years ago.
In order to achieve its goal, the ExoMars mission will do things differently than its American counterparts. The deepest anyone has dug on Mars is only six centimeters, and that is a problem if your goal is to look for signs of life, present or past. Scientists believe it is very unlikely to find such evidence in the top meter of Martian soil as millions of years of exposure to cosmic radiation, ultraviolet light, and powerfully oxidizing perchlorates likely destroyed any organic biosignature a long time ago.
“The recipe we have with ExoMars is we’re going to drill below all that crap,” to a depth of two meters, ExoMars project scientist Jorge Vago tells Inverse. “Our hypothesis is that if you go to the right place and drill deep enough, you may be able to get access to well preserved organic material from 4 billion years ago, when conditions on the surface of Mars were more like what we had on infant Earth.”
The astrobiology lab on six wheels is a joint venture between the ESA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. While Rosalind Franklin is operated by the ESA, Russia’s contribution includes the Kazachok lander vehicle, meant to land and safely release the rover on Mars’s Oxia Planum, a region thought to have once been the coastline of a very large northern hemisphere ocean. Additionally, Russia developed several important science instruments for the mission, as well as offered the launch platform. Only the International Space Station is more significant in terms of cooperation between the ESA and Russia.
Originally planned for 2020, the launch of the mission was postponed to 20 September 2022 from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. But considering the dire situation in Ukraine and the heavy sanctions imposed by the United States and its European allies, the mission has now been postponed indefinitely.
“We are fully implementing sanctions imposed on Russia by our Member States,” the ESA announced in a press statement. “Regarding the ExoMars program continuation, the sanctions and the wider context make a launch in 2022 very unlikely.”
“We are giving absolute priority to taking proper decisions, not only for the sake of our workforce involved in the programmes, but in full respect of our European values, which have always fundamentally shaped our approach to international cooperation.”
The announcement comes on the heels of Roscosmos’s decision over the week to suspend flights of its Soyuz rockets from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana, as a retaliation for the western sanctions. Roscosmos has even gone as far as putting into question the viability of the International Space Station, where it has been a founding partner since the station’s first modules were launched in 1998. That’s despite Washington having been clear that its stiff sanctions targeting the Russian economy and tech sector will continue to allow U.S.-Russian civil space cooperation.
It’s too early to say what might happen next but it’s likely that Roscosmos cannot be counted on for ExoMars moving forward. This means that the rover must be launched using a different partner and a new landing platform needs to be developed, which could amount to at least another two years of delay. That’s when the next favorable launch window is available — every two years Mars and Earth’s orbits align allowing for a much shorter journey between the two planets.
As the crisis in Ukraine drags on, it’s saddening to see how the war not only disrupts people’s lives across the world and causes unspeakable suffering, but also how its effects extend well beyond our borders — even to another planet.