L’Agence Spatiale Européenne (ESA) et son homologue russe Roscosmos ont décidé de reporter à 2022 l’envol d’ExoMars prévu initialement cet été. Le rover Rosalind Franklin devra attendre encore un peu avant d’arpenter la planète rouge.
We must remember that this exploration of the surface of Mars in search of signs of ancient life is a European Space Agency (ESA) initiative with major participation from Russia through its Roscosmos agency. The latter supplied the Proton launcher and Kazachok landing platform with 13 scientific instruments. Thanks to this platform, the European Rosalind Franklin rover equipped with 9 instruments and a drill capable of collecting samples to a depth of 2 metres, will land on Martian soil for the very first time. Lift-off was planned for summer 2020. In 2016, ExoMars had already been postponed from 2018 to 2020.
« OPTIMISING RELIABILITY’ » And Covid-19
This 12 March 2020, the two ExoMars partners, ESA and Roscosmos, announced a new delay: the flight to Mars would not take place this year. We want to make ourselves 100% sure of a successful mission. We cannot allow ourselves any margin of error, declared ESA Director General Jan Wörner live on video, while thanking the teams in industry that have been working around the clock for nearly a year. The prime contractor for the mission is the European Thales Alenia Space with Airbus Defence and Space a main subcontractor for building the rover. The Russian Kazachok platform is supplied by the Russian aerospace company NPO Lavochkin.
We have learned that ExoMars’ different elements (rover, Kazachok platform, instruments, etc.) had been successfully tested. There remained, nonetheless, one final test on the landing system’s main parachutes. It should be conducted soon at high altitude in the United States. It should be noted, however, that neither these parachutes nor any other specific reason has been mentioned to explain the delay for this mission. The official ESA press release states that the two partner agencies agree on the need to undertake more tests of the ship with the definitive hardware and software. The stated goal is thus the need to maximise the robustness of all ExoMars’ systems, to quote Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin. In the past, other Space missions were postponed to ensure proper operation of different systems or even instruments (this was the case for InSight’s SEIS seismometer for example, which was successful). Reference was also made to the situation created by Covid-19, since ESA and Roscosmos had to recognise that the final phase of ExoMars activities are compromised by the general aggravation of the epidemiological situation in European countries.’
why this 2 year delay ?
Since ExoMars will not be taking of this summer, it is necessary to wait another 2 years, more precisely, for a window ‘between August and October 2022.’ Here, celestial mechanics combined with launchers’ limitations prevail. It takes the Earth one year to complete its orbit around the Sun (this is what defines the year) while its takes Mars about twice as long. Consequently, both planets are in a favourable position for a journey linking them every two years — more precisely 26 months. What is known as a launch window (the most favourable period to attain their goal) lasts a few weeks in the case of a journey towards Mars. Optimisation of the reliability of ExoMars as intended by ESA and Roscosmos not being possible before the end of the launch window in 2020, there is no other option than to wait for the one in 2022. ExoMars 2020 has been renamed ExoMars 2022.
Obviously, a rover, its landing platform and the other elements in a Space mission cannot be stored like everyday equipment. Astronautic systems must be kept in a controlled atmosphere, not to mention the verifications that must be made to make sure everything is in good condition. All this has a cost, not specified at the time we are posting this article online.
The ESA and Roscosmos announcement was well received by Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, who tweeted (below) that he understood the difficult decision to postpone ExoMars, emphasising the demanding nature of a mission to Mars and the need for everything to function perfectly.
In response to this tweet, Jan Wörner stated that, in his opinion, the ExoMars delay should have no impact on Mars Sample Return (MSR), a joint ESA and NASA project. Thus, the Americain Perseverance rover (scheduled to take off on 17 July) is capable of keeping samples deemed interesting so they can be brought back to Earth layer via the MSR mission.