Europe’s ‘life on Mars’ mission delayed until 2022

The 'Rosalind Franklin' Mars rover, pictured with the niece of the eponymous scientist after whom the equipment is named. [Photo: ESA]

The European Space Agency and its Russian partner, Roscosmos, announced on Thursday (12 March) that a planned mission to Mars will be postponed, blaming it on a mixture of technical gremlins and the coronavirus outbreak.

ExoMars 2020 was meant to launch in July but will now have to wait two years for another shot at reaching the Red Planet, after failed parachute tests proved fatal for the mission’s launch prospects.

ESA and Roscosmos also revealed that the ongoing coronavirus outbreak meant that experts were unable to do their jobs as planned as there was “no possibility to proceed with travels to partner industries”.

“We want to make certain that we are 100% sure for a successful mission. We cannot allow ourselves any margin of error. More verification activities will ensure a safe trip and the best scientific results on Mars,” said ESA Director General Jan Wörner. 

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The joint European-Russian mission hopes to land a rover on the Martian surface and probe whether there ever was life on the planet.

According to the mission log, “ExoMars will be the first mission to search for signs of life at depths up to two metres below the Martian surface, where biological signatures of life may be uniquely well preserved.”

Although both agencies are well-equipped to investigate findings once they obtain them, neither has extensive experience in such complex landing missions.

In 2016, the test phase of the mission – designed to simulate a Mars landing – failed when a data glitch deployed the spacecraft’s parachutes too early. It means that the main stage of ExoMars will have to be the first successful landing.

Issues with parachutes have resurfaced and are believed to be the principal cause of the lengthy delay. Testing last year revealed severe problems with the systems and fresh trials will be needed before the agencies can confidently proceed to the launchpad.

The mission’s window is only a short one – it can only take off when the Earth is at its closest point to Mars’ orbit – once every 26 months and for just 10 days. Spacecraft would lack the necessary fuel otherwise.

China, Japan and the United States are all scheduled to launch their own Mars missions this year, during 2020’s ‘celestial window’ between July and August. It is unclear whether the coronavirus outbreak will affect those plans.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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