The ExoMars program, a joint effort between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s Roscosmos, has had its fair share of setbacks. One of the primary components of its first mission failed to deploy on Mars, and now the second phase has been pushed back. According to ESA director general Jan Woerner, testing on the Rosalind Franklin rover won’t be complete in time for the summer 2020 launch due in part to the expanding coronavirus epidemic.
In 2016, the first ExoMars mission reached the red planet. The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) functioned as planned, allowing operators to collect new data on the composition of Mars’ atmosphere. However, the Schiaparelli lander released from TGO didn’t function correctly. It jettisoned its parachute too early and only fired its descent thrusters for a few seconds before crashing into the surface.
Schiaparelli was going to be a stationary lander, but the Rosalind Franklin rover will be able to move around the surface and gather much more data. So, the ESA and Roscosmos are understandably committed to making sure all the systems are fully tested before launch. The hardware still needs to undergo numerous tests, and the ESA no longer believes it has enough time to get it done.
Europe is currently experiencing high levels of COVID-19 spread, and that has reduced the number of people able to travel to work on the project. These delays wouldn’t stop the ESA from launching the mission, but it can’t complete all the testing it would like in time.
ESA and @roscosmos are postponing the launch of the second #ExoMars mission in order to complete all tests necessary for mission success. The new schedule foresees a launch between August and October 2022 👉 https://t.co/so9CrcAc8a pic.twitter.com/o1y5OPRoJ6
— ESA (@esa) March 12, 2020
The delay until 2022 is not based on any element of the COVID-19 outbreak. The team simply knows it’s going to miss the summer launch window. Most mars missions launch during times when Earth and Mars are close to each other in their orbits. That’s why NASA aims to launch the Perseverance rover this summer. The next alignment of the planets comes between August and October 2022, so that’s when the ESA and Roscosmos will plan to give this another shot. In the meantime, they’ll have plenty of time to complete rover testing.
When it finally reaches Mars, the Rosalind Franklin rover will travel around the Oxia Planum region to search for signs of ancient life. The ESA and Roscosmos hope the rover will operate for at last seven months on Mars.
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