War, budget cuts, a pandemic and an accident: despite all its evidence, Europe’s ExoMars mission might be more deserving of the name Perseverance than NASA’s Martian rover.
But the European Space Agency still hopes the mission can launch in 2028 in its long-delayed search for alien life on the Red Planet.
This time last year, ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover was set for a September launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, planning to ride on a Russian rocket and descend to the Martian surface in a Russian lander.
Moscow then invaded Ukraine in March, and sanctions imposed by all 22 ESA member states led Russia to withdraw and suspend the mission.
It was just the latest blow for the hundreds of scientists who have been working on the project for more than two decades.
First conceived in 2001, the ambitious program quickly proved too expensive for Europe, which has yet to land a rover on Mars.
The United States space agency, NASA, stepped in to fill the funding gap in 2009. But three years later, budget cuts led NASA to pull out.
Help then came from an unexpected source: the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
Together, ESA and Roscosmos launched the Schiaparelli EDM module in 2016 as a test for ExoMars.
But when Schiaparelli arrived on Mars, a computer glitch caused him to crash to the surface and go silent.
That failure delayed the launch of the joint Russian-European ExoMars mission until July 2020.
The Covid-19 pandemic pushed that date back to 2022, when it was pushed back again by the invasion of Ukraine.
– Difficult Russian negotiations –
Late last year, ESA’s ministerial council agreed to keep the mission alive with an injection of 500 million euros ($540 million) over the next three years.
David Parker, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, said last week that one of the arguments they made for continuing the mission was “that it is a unique piece of European science.”
“It’s like James Webb,” he said, referring to the space telescope that has been sending back amazing images of distant galaxies since 2022.
“But it’s for Mars, it’s that scale of ambition.
“This is the only planned mission that can actually find evidence of past lives.”
But some major hurdles remain that could make a 2028 launch difficult, including ESA needing a new way to land its rover on Mars.
ESA will first have to recover European components, including an on-board computer and radar altimeter, from Russia’s Kazachok lander, which is still at its assembly site in Turin, Italy.
However, only Russia can extract the components of the lander.
Difficult negotiations have been underway for Russian experts to come and dismantle the lander.
“We expected them in mid-January, but they didn’t arrive,” ESA’s ExoMars program team leader Thierry Blancquaert told AFP.
“We asked them to have everything ready by the end of March,” he added.
– NASA to the rescue? –
To get off the ground, the new mission will depend on support from NASA, which has so far indicated it’s happy to help.
For its new lander, ESA hopes to take advantage of the US engines used to bring NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers to the Martian surface.
It will also have to rely on NASA for radioisotope heating units, after losing access to supplies from Russia. These units keep the spacecraft warm.
NASA has yet to vote on a budget to support such efforts, but “we are preparing to work collaboratively together and things are progressing well,” Blancquaert said.
Francois Forget, an astrophysicist at France’s CNRS scientific research center, said that “this new impetus for cooperation is related to the fact that this time, the United States has a joint project with Europe: Mars Sample Return.”
The mission, planned for around 2030, aims to return to Earth samples collected from Mars by ExoMars and Perseverance, which landed on the planet in July 2021.
Unlike Perseverance, the Rosalind Franklin rover can drill up to two meters (6.5 feet) below the surface of Mars, where traces of possible ancient life might be better preserved.
ExoMars’ planned landing site is also in an area of Mars that is expected to have been most favorable for hosting past lives.
“We think there was a lot of water there,” Forget said.
“There is another Mars to explore, so even 10 years from now the mission will not be obsolete,” he added.