Europe’s first Mars rover mission saved by huge investment | Popgen Tech


Artist's impression of ESA's ExoMars rover.

The European Rosalind Franklin rover will have a 2-meter bore to probe the Martian surface.Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Europe’s Rosalind Franklin Mars rover, part of the beleaguered €1.3 billion (US$1.35 billion) ExoMars program, will now launch in 2028, after receiving a reported €360 million investment from European countries obtained.

The money will enable the European Space Agency (ESA) to begin designing a new landing platform to land its first Mars rover on the planet’s surface. The work became necessary after ESA cut ties with its former partner on the mission, the Russian space agency Roscosmos, in March following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Roscomos was in charge of designing and building landing gear for the rover, as well as launching the mission from its site in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

“I am very relieved and incredibly happy that this great mission has not been taken away from us, and that I can continue to hope to one day send a rover to Mars,” said Daniela Tirsch, a planetary geologist at the German Aerospace Center in Berlin . Only the United States and China have so far placed working rovers on Mars.

The latest postponement is the third in the mission’s history. The ExoMars rover was originally intended to launch in 2018, but technical problems derailed that plan. The COVID-19 pandemic then delayed a scheduled 2020 flight to 2022, before relations with Russia deteriorated. The cost of this second delay was in the order of €100 million, an ESA spokesman said Earth.

Deep drilling

Despite the delays and rising costs, scientists remain excited about the ExoMars rover. This is the second part of the program, following an orbiter that arrived at the red planet in 2016 and was looking for biological or geological origins of methane and other gases.

The Franklin rover is carrying a 2-meter drill that will burrow deep beneath the Martian surface to search for preserved signs of ancient life. “For the very first time, we will be looking for evidence of past life in the subsurface,” said Jorge Vago, ESA project scientist for the mission, based at the European Space Research and Technology Center in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

“ExoMars is really an incredible mission that will be unique in method and scientific approach, even if it is launched in 2028,” said Francesca Esposito, a planetary scientist at the INAF Astronomical Observatory of Capodimonte in Naples, Italy, and member of the mission team.

“This is the first mission that can probe the very early history of terrestrial planets,” adds Tirsch, noting that the rover’s intended landing site, a vast plain called Oxia Planum, “records unique information about ancient, water-rich Martian environments, prebiotic chemistry, and perhaps life”.

ESA expects NASA to help by contributing the mission’s launcher, its thruster engine – for use during landing – and its radioisotope-based heating units, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said at a press briefing on 23 November said. The units are necessary for Rosalind Franklin to survive the harsh Martian nights. But European technology will replace the rest of Russia’s lost contribution, he said.

Member states pledged the cash for the mission at the ESA ministerial conference in Paris on 22 and 23 November, at which they committed a budget of €16.9 billion in total for projects over 5 years. This includes €2.7 billion for human and robotic space exploration, a 16% increase over the last allocation in 2019, and €3.2 billion for the agency’s science program, a 19% increase.

As part of this commitment, ministers agreed to fund the Solaris project, a program to assess the viability of developing, from 2025, a space-based solar power system that would transmit energy to Earth. Nations around the world are exploring technology to beam energy from a kilometer-sized solar array into orbit, an idea that has become more viable given the falling cost of space launches.


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